Frictionless travel28 December 2021
Designed with the future of seamless travel in mind, Western Sydney International (Nancy-Bird Walton) Airport is scheduled to begin operation in 2026. Andrew Barnett speaks to Tom McCormack, the project’s chief technology officer, about the work under way to create a digitalised and sustainable 21st-century airport.
As Australia’s showcase city and commercial heart, Sydney is a place of constant flux as it grows bigger and busier. The world-famous ‘harbour city’ is home to one-fifth of the Australian population and was welcoming more than nine million tourists a year prior to Covid-19. Yet – until now – it has been reliant on one international airport.
In one of the country’s largest and most expensive infrastructure projects, work is under way on a second major aviation hub, the Western Sydney International (Nancy-Bird Walton) Airport, located at Badgerys Creek, 60km west of the Sydney central business district (CBD).
Site preparation, which started in 2018, represents one of the biggest earth moving challenges in Australian history, with around 26 million cubic metres of earth making way for a single-runway airport and terminal. Work on the terminal began in November 2021, while runway construction will follow in 2022. The first international, domestic and air cargo flights are expected to take off in late 2026.
Competition arrives in Sydney
Western Sydney Airport will relieve pressure on Sydney Kingsford-Smith Airport, which has had a monopoly on international air traffic since 1970. The intention is to do more than just relieve pressure though – the new airport will also bring competition to the Sydney aviation sector.
Tom McCormack, the project’s chief technology officer at Western Sydney Airport, says the newest addition to the local transport landscape will provide Sydneysiders, airlines and air cargo operators with an alternative – and he is confident they will choose the new kid on the block.
“Western Sydney International is about growth and choice for customers,” says McCormack. “For the first time, Sydney will have a 24/7 airport, bringing it in line with major cities around the world and opening up the city to a new world of opportunities.”
The new airport is located in the heart of Sydney’s fastest growing geographical zone. With the harbour providing a natural barrier to the east, Sydney’s core growth has expanded to the west, sprawling further and further away from the city centre. The airport figures prominently in government plans to improve access and opportunity in this area via the Western Sydney City Deal strategy, a 20-year vision to create a ‘22nd-century city’ that stands alone from the CBD.
The airport’s development will pave the way for the so-called ‘Western Sydney Aerotropolis’, a vast commercial development designed to become a hub for aerospace, defence, manufacturing, healthcare and other sectors. The New South Wales (NSW) state government has sold the concept off the back of converting this infrastructure and investment not only into jobs, but also improvements in health and education, retail, hospitality and industrial activity in the area.
McCormack says the airport – like the city itself – is all about embracing change. “When Western Sydney International opens, it will be the closest airport for more than 2.5 million people, meaning it will have the third-largest catchment of any Australian airport on day one,” he says. “The airport is set to grow in stages over decades, eventually becoming one of the largest gateways to Australia.”
Western Sydney Airport will welcome ten million passengers each year until 2031. Incremental increases will then see that figure grow to 80 million by 2063. McCormack says the project will also provide a platform for growth in Sydney’s aviation capacity over the coming decades, something he says is needed to ensure that Australia’s largest city is able to compete on the world stage.
“Every aspect of Western Sydney International – from the integrated international and domestic passenger terminal to the airfield and air cargo hub – is being designed from the ground up with the customer front and centre,” he says. “Great design, sustainability, digital technology and data will come together to set a new benchmark for what passengers expect when they fly.”
Flying from Western Sydney International will be fast, easy and seamless. “For airlines and air cargo operators, our modern, custom-built facilities, which have been designed with the input of our airline and air cargo MoU [memorandum of understanding] partners, will underpin operational efficiency and reliability,” McCormack. The airfield design will reduce taxi times and prevent delays on the tarmac that can be frustrating for passengers and costly for airlines.
As you would expect, technology also plays a key role. The airport will be the first in Sydney equipped with a modern CAT III-B runway, allowing aircraft to continue operating in foggy conditions that currently shut down Sydney’s skies. McCormack says this will give passengers and airlines confidence and certainty.
It’s just one way, he says, that the airport is looking to solve problems that face passengers and airlines on a day-to-day basis. “We’ll put ourselves in our passengers’ shoes to understand the pain points that cause frustration at most airports and consider if technology can offer a solution,” he says, citing one of the most fundamental aspects of travel as an example.
“Our baggage handling system will use digital technology to track, load and move baggage faster and more reliably than at other airports. This modern and flexible system can be easily expanded to meet capacity demands and keep up with emerging technologies as the airport grows.”
Infrastructure backed by political capital
Considerable political will is behind the airport – and a not insignificant amount of public investment. Western Sydney International is backed by A$15bn in supporting infrastructure and investment jointly funded by the Australian government and its counterpart in NSW. That funding is designed to safeguard the efficient passage of travellers across the city, linking the airport to new and improved road and rail arteries, including a new metro link.
The new A$11bn Sydney Metro train line linking the airport to the city centre and nearby residential areas should ease the pressure on the roads and encourage public transport use. Western Sydney Airport will have two Sydney Metro train stations – one at the airport’s business park and one at the passenger terminal.
There will also be a new toll-free motorway linking the airport to key commuter suburbs. In addition, billions of dollars are being spent upgrading Western Sydney’s feeder roads so they will be able to cope with the extra traffic the airport will generate. Minimising delays and reducing congestion are crucial in a city heavily reliant on motor transportation.
Building a new airport, of course, comes with unique challenges as the industry looks to reduce its environmental impact in the face of the existential threat that climate change poses.
McCormack is adamant that green goals are front and centre. That’s hardly surprising given that airports worldwide are needing to convince a more environmentally aware public of their green credentials. “We are building an airport for western Sydney’s future, which is why we are focused on sustainability and minimising the impact of the airport on the environment,” he says.
“Sustainable design, energy efficiency and circular economy principles are key considerations. When it comes to our airfield, which includes the 3.7km runway, rapid-exit taxiways, 3,000 aeronautical ground lights and more than 40km of airside roads, we’ll be using recycled and reused content where appropriate.”
That includes recycled road base, asphalt product and glass, as well as reduced carbon materials in concrete. Millions of tonnes of crushed sandstone from road and rail tunnelling projects across Sydney will also be used as a high-strength foundation to support the construction of the runway, taxiways and roads.
LED lights will be used for all aeronautical ground lighting. “This ensures significant energy savings across the airfield and a significantly longer design life, meaning less frequent replacement required,” McCormack says.
The airport will use a digital addressable lighting interface, meaning the LED lights can be individually controlled to facilitate optimal wayfinding on the airfield. All non-aeronautical ground lighting will also be LED, providing further energy and material savings.
The design of the airfield will also drive sustainability outcomes by reducing fuel burn and other costs by slashing taxi and holding times. In terms of the terminal design, efficient lighting and air conditioning systems will provide superior energy efficiency and reduce carbon emissions.
The airport has its sights set on an ‘excellent’ rating from the Infrastructure Sustainability Council of Australia, the industry body pushing for better carbon emissions and waste outcomes in development. This will be a delicate balancing act, with sustainability needing to align with technical and safety requirements. The airport and its systems will be subject to rigorous performance testing prior to use.
“There are strong rules around the sustainability standards we must meet, but we are looking for opportunities to go further in ensuring the airport represents a commitment to future generations,” McCormack says.
Looking ahead, he notes that consideration has also been given to how emerging technologies – including electric and hybrid-electric aircraft – can be integrated in the future.
Sydney’s second airport represents a bold and ambitious aviation project that comes at a time when the industry’s environmental impact is – more than ever – under the microscope. Yet Australia’s vast size and geographical isolation means it will inevitably remain reliant on aviation to stay connected both internationally and domestically. Western Sydney Airport provides a unique opportunity to demonstrate how sustainable innovation and customer centricity can contribute to a better future for air travel.
In supporting infrastructure and investment from the Australian and NSW governments backing Western Sydney International.
Western Sydney Airport
Passengers will pass through the airport annually by 2063, increasing incrementally year-on-year.
Western Sydney Airport