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Issue #1768      March 8, 2017

Essendon disaster demands action

The recent crash of an aircraft at Melbourne’s Essendon airport raises profound questions about Australia’s aviation policy.

The plane carrying four US tourists to King Island crashed into the DFO retail centre next to the runway. The passengers and pilot died immediately. The centre hadn’t opened for business and no employees were injured, although several were treated for shock.

The pilot’s ability and the plane’s engine maintenance have come under question. However, the major issues highlighted by this and previous crashes are the location of the retail centre and the Tullamarine Freeway alongside the runway, and housing built almost to the airport’s boundaries.

One aviation analyst commented: “The DFO sits on what used to be clear land for the airport”, and a local teacher observed: “If the DFO hadn’t been there [the pilot] would have landed on a patch of grass.”

A DFO store manager said: “It feels like you can reach out and touch the planes. ... when their engines are running you can hear that ... and there is always the smell of aviation fuel when they take off and land.” One employee commented: “We have said this 100 times – one day a plane will hit [the building].”

Background to a tragedy

Once isolated, Essendon airport is now surrounded by suburbs, and the value of neighbouring land has soared. The airport is Commonwealth-owned, and the site is not subject to local and state government planning controls.

Privatisation of Australia’s airports began in 1997 under the Howard government. In 1998 Essendon airport was leased for 50 years to property developer Beck Corporation and transport group Linfox. The DFO centre was built in 2002.

Local community group Close Essendon Airport Campaign opposed the DFO construction but its protests were ignored.

After the crash Essendon Airport management declared: “Planning on and around airports is subject to an extensive public consultation process, including the local community and all relevant authorities.” But Helen Van der Berg, former leader of the community group, said there had been no consultation with them, the state government or the council.

Airports catering for light aircraft carry a high risk of accidents. But in the last 39 years Essendon has had on average one serious incident every six and a half years, resulting in 17 deaths, many injuries and the destruction of planes, homes and other property.

In 1978 a light aircraft crashed into houses near the runway’s western end, killing six people and severely injuring two crew members and a passenger.

In 1986 an air ambulance crashed near the airport, killing five patients and the pilot. In 1993, in the “Gilbertson Street miracle”, ten people narrowly escaped death when their plane crashed into five houses near the runway.

Within the past decade there have been 287 incidents ranging from minor events to major accidents. In 2014 a light aircraft crash-landed, and last year a Royal Flying Doctors plane skidded on its undercarriage 500 metres down the runway. And now five people have died in the DFO crash.

The lessons

Essendon airport’s history demonstrates the power of developers to capitalise on the commercial value of airports and adjacent land, and the willingness of state and federal governments to allow development close to and within airport sites.

Planning expert Michael Buxton said the Essendon DFO was “one of the most extensive commercialisations of any airport in Australia, and it has put thousands of extra people daily within the airport complex”. He added that since 1978 retail leaseholders had made “pockets of money” by building on vacant land at airports.

To minimise casualties in the event of emergencies, airport runways should be surrounded by vast clear areas. But local residents and others say the 300 hectare Essendon airport should be four times bigger, with an emergency buffer zone. Ms van der Berg observed: “If I buy a ticket for Tullamarine I know there is a buffer of green space around it. At Essendon there’s nothing.”

She claims that public servants pointed out decades ago that Essendon airport needed a large buffer zone. In 1996 the ALP dropped a promise to convert it to a film studio site and public open space.

The Essendon community group argued for its conversion to residential use. Federal MP Kelvin Thompson admitted that it had “reached its use-by date”, but no action was taken.

Airports should also be designed so that passengers leave as rapidly as possible. However, Australia’s main domestic and international airports already have major retail facilities in place within the main airport buildings, to tempt passengers to linger as long as possible and maximise their purchases. Moreover, there’s now talk of the construction of a huge shopping complex adjacent to Sydney’s international airport.

Ironically, the hazardous proximity of airports to runways carries some benefits for retail operators. One DFO employee remarked: “... customers can stand and watch planes come in. It’s a spectacle”.

The airport shopping phenomenon was even satirised in one episode of the ABC TV series Kath and Kim, in which two of the stars had such a good time shopping at an airport that they decided to have their holiday there, rather than board their flight.

Planning decisions that have resulted in houses being built at the end of runways, or the construction of retail facilities next to runways, are not driven by a burning desire to ensure public safety. Their object is to capitalise on the increasing value of urban land and the market provided by thousands of well-heeled tourists.

Even the Victorian premier, who to his credit terminated the proposal for a massive freeway through Melbourne’s suburbs, responded to the DFO crash by describing Essendon airport as essential for the state’s economy. As van der Berg commented bitterly, “... commerce takes precedence over people”.

The major parties won’t close a profitable airport and the aviation corporations will fight tooth and nail against any move to do so. The only way to rectify appallingly dangerous planning decisions like those demonstrated at Essendon airport is to place in government as soon as possible a new party or coalition irrevocably committed to public safety. Our airports should never have been privatised.

Next article – WA election – Vote for progress

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