Paul Phelan/CAIRNS

Qantas and Ansett have warned of mounting chaos at Sydney's Kingsford Smith Airport following an Australian Government directive on overflying the city's suburbs which has effectively halved off-peak capacity at the airport. Controllers have also raised safety concerns.

A new long term operating plan (LTOP) had been thrashed out for the airport last year, which put a cap of 80 movements an hour throughout the day and included rules on switching runways and flight paths during off-peak periods, to share noise pollution over the suburbs. Noise sharing was meant to be subject to demand, but the caveat was dropped in a new Government directive given to air traffic controllers only weeks after the start of the new regime at the beginning of the year. That directive brought possible movements down to only 40 an hour.

Problems came to a head on 16 February with a system breakdown which Sydney's air traffic controllers are calling "Black Monday", when airborne and taxiing delays amounted to an hour.

The airlines have issued angry protests, warning that the new limits will reduce traffic into the hub, harm its development as a tourism gateway and cause economic damage to Sydney, including jeopardising the city's planning for the 2000 Olympic Games.

Ansett executive director Rod Eddington wrote to Australian transport minister Mark Vaile asking the Government to "-justify a fundamental policy change" after only six weeks of operations of the new procedures. He adds that the new limits would have "unacceptable, far-reaching and severe impact on the efficiency and capacity of the airport.

Domestic operators already expect compliance with the LTOP to cost A$80 million ($50 million) a year before the new directive.

Qantas chief executive James Strong has backed the complaints in a similar letter to Vaile, in which he says that the changes "contradict the whole approach developed for Sydney airport after considerable consultation and compromise".

Controllers and pilots are demanding that politicians stop interfering, citing fears of a potential breakdown in safety defences. They claim that frequent changes in runway configuration and traffic flows demanded by the noise sharing scheme will inevitably erode safety margins by increasing airspace congestion as well as pilot and controller workload.

Australia's Bureau of Air Safety Investigation is already investigating an LTOP-related near-miss. A foreign airliner turned across the approach path of an inbound flight after take-off on one of the minister's favoured noise-sharing modes, in which departing and arriving aircraft pass in opposite directions.

Source: Flight International