NEARLY 330,000 people flew between Ballina, Lismore and Grafton airports and Sydney last year. Among these were local residents flying to Sydney for business, to visit friends and family, see medical specialists or en route to other towns, cities and countries.
They would also have included Sydneysiders doing business or just wanting to spend time on the beautiful beaches and the hinterland of the Northern Rivers and North Coast region.
All of these visits are good news for the local economy.
They bring jobs, investment and they support tourism, retail and other industries in the Northern Rivers, the North Coast and Sydney.
Unfortunately, if some people have their way, aviation access to and from Sydney will become increasingly difficult for the people of regional NSW.
In a nutshell, Sydney Airport is full. All the tinkering in the world won't change that.
Last month I released a 3200-page, independent report commissioned by both the Federal and NSW governments, which made it clear that Sydney's aviation infrastructure cannot cope with future demand.
Sydney will need a second airport sooner rather than later.
I know this is an uncomfortable fact but it cannot be ignored, particularly by people living in regional NSW.
Here is why. Right now, on weekdays, there are no landing or take-off slots left for new regional flights within NSW in 8 of the 17 hours the airport operates, namely between 630am and 11am and between 4pm and 8pm. None.
Half of each weekday, during the times people want to travel, is almost impossible for new or extra services to the state's regional destinations.
The report makes it clear that the situation will worsen.
This is a real handbrake on growth for regional communities.
Regional air services in NSW have grown by nearly 25% over the past five years. Sydney alone has seen a million more passengers from regional destinations over the past five years.
Sydney Airport is the linchpin not just for the state aviation network hut for the nation.
Access to Sydney is critical in supporting economic growth in regional communities on the North Coast.
Make no mistake, there are people, including those with a vested interest, who would be happy to stop smaller, regional planes from flying into and out of Sydney Airport.
Consider this: a regional flight, on average, carries 30 passengers, compared with 140 passengers for every domestic city flight. It is an easy calculation for those looking to maximise profits to simply get rid of smaller regional aircraft and concentrate on larger aircraft.
As Transport Minister, I have ensured there is a "ring fence" protecting regional air services. The Government has protected slots for regional flights so that they can't be taken over by larger domestic and international services and we will continue to do so.
But we need to do more, particularly to ensure regional aviation can continue to grow.
Without action on a second airport, regional airlines will continue to feel the squeeze at the nation's busiest airport.
The economic cost of doing nothing is substantial. International experience has shown that airports create 1000 jobs for every one million passengers.
In fact, if we don't act, the nation will simply lose jobs and economic investment.
By 2035, the cost to GDP of turning away flights will be $6 billion. By 2060 it will be nearly six times more.
Building a second airport for Sydney is too important a national issue to drag into short-term, partisan politics. It needs a mature bipartisan approach.
That is why I have already provided briefings through the Department of Infrastructure to Members of Parliament from across the political spectrum.
Building a second airport also has support from the business community, from the airline industry, from the tourism industry.
This is not only about Sydney maintaining its status as Australia's global city but also about making sure all regional Australians continue to benefit from aviation access to Sydney.
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