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Sydney Airport: Being a good neighbour


Sydney Airport is looking to the future with optimism with the sustainable operation and development of its facilities high on the agenda, writes Joe Bates.

The sustainable operation and development of its facilities is so important to Sydney Airport (SYD) that it is front and centre into the master plan that will shape its growth over the next 20 years.

Indeed, the gateway’s Master Plan 2039 embeds its approach to sustainability into the planning and design of the future Sydney Airport expansion, actions that led to its proposals receiving a 4-Star Communities rating from the Green Building Council of Australia.

Airport CEO, Geoff Culbert, says: “We are committed to reducing the carbon footprint of the airport, ensuring it is resilient to climate change, conserving significant items of natural, indigenous or heritage value and protecting environmentally significant areas.

“We have a strong track record on incorporating sustainability into our operations and in recent years entered into a power purchase agreement for renewable energy and developed market-leading financial instruments like sustainability-linked bonds and loans.

“We have also implemented several energy efficient projects including a large solar PV array on one of our carparks and electrification of our bus fleet. We have also invested significantly in a recycled water treatment plant and reticulation network.

“We have clear targets of being carbon neutral by 2025 and reaching net zero by 2030, and we are working closely with the industry on sustainable aviation fuel initiatives. Like everyone in the industry, we know how critical this is.”

Sydney Airport took the opportunity to go into more detail about its sustainability actions and ambitions ahead of the UN organised World Environment Day on June 5.

Among its key goals are:

  • A commitment to supporting the decarbonisation of the aviation industry
  • Supporting the global goal of 10% sustainable aviation fuels by 2030
  • Achieving net zero emissions by 2030 (Scope 1 and Scope 2 emissions)
  • Reducing Scope 3 emissions by 50% from airport ground operations by 2025
  • To be using 100% renewable electricity by 2025
  • Providing A$1 million per year to local environmental projects, including bush regeneration works across Sydney Airport Wetlands.

A statement issued by SYD said: “As Australia’s busiest airport, Sydney Airport understands that global warming is a shared challenge requiring action from all, and we are committed to supporting the aviation industry to decarbonise.

“The most urgent aviation industry priority is developing a sustainable aviation fuel industry in Australia. Australia can have a significant role to play in the global fuels transition, and Sydney Airport commends the Federal Government’s decision to establish a Jet Zero Council and looks forward to ongoing participation in the council. Regenerating and protecting the precious ecosystem surrounding our airport is also a key priority for the airport.”

It also marked World Environment Day by donating A$200,000 to Bayside Council for landscaping in Sir Joseph Banks Park in Botany to increase the tree canopy and provide new habitat for wildlife.

Bush regeneration works in the wetlands around the airport have now been underway since 1999 and, in the last year, more than 10,000 native trees, shrubs and grasses were planted at Engine Ponds East with the help of Sydney Airport staff volunteers and Wildflower – Gardens for Good, an Indigenous-owned and managed not-for-profit.

SYD’s co-head of safety, sustainability and the environment, Jake Atkins, says: “Our passengers often tell us they are blown away by the beauty of Botany Bay as they fly into Sydney Airport.

“The Botany Wetlands, including the Sydney Airport Wetlands, are considered one of the last remaining green corridors in a highly disturbed area of Sydney. Being surrounded by such precious wetlands is an immense privilege, and we take the responsibility of caring for them very seriously.

“As the aviation energy transition gains pace, Sydney Airport will continue to play a role in aviation’s decarbonisation journey and is focused on delivering the infrastructure and management measures needed to decarbonise.

“Several energy efficiency projects have recently been completed, including the installation of more efficient LED lights in our car parks and terminals, with another 3,500 LED lights to be installed later in the year.

“This year, we will continue to work with airlines and ground handlers to increase the use of ground power and pre-conditioned air, reduce jet fuel burn while on the gates, and progress electrification of ground service equipment fleets.

“We will also continue to consult with the Australian Government and the community on the review of the Demand Management Scheme at Sydney Airport. There are still important improvements that can be made to enhance the efficiency of airport operations while also having beneficial carbon emissions outcomes.”


Unveiled in 2019, expanding the current terminals, building a new satellite pier, and enhancing the airfield are key elements of SYD’s 20-year development plan, and they remain very much on the table now that passenger numbers are on the rise again following the end of the global pandemic.

Culbert says: “We intend to keep building the infrastructure and capacity to cater for every passenger and airline that wants to fly to SYD. While COVID temporarily delayed the roll out of some projects, we have completed others. These have included a major runway resurfacing project, the complete refurbishment of the Terminal 1 forecourt and a new luxury shopping precinct in T1.

“The good news is that aviation activity at Sydney Airport is continuing to recover strongly, and we have just adopted a renewed, five-year capital works pipeline that runs to more than A$2 billion.

“Next year, our capital expenditure budget will be nearly 60% bigger than it was in 2019, and we will be investing more than a A$1.3 million a day in projects to further improve the customer experience, accommodate growth and enhance capacity.”

© Kurt Ams.

SYD’s Five-Year Ground Transport Plan and 20-year Ground Transport Strategy to enhance surface access and connectivity to SYD are included in Master Plan 2039. What will these projects involve and why are they so important?

“Like all major city airports around the world, we recognised that traffic is a real pain point for people and that’s why we are investing so much in alleviating congestion,” says Culbert. “Recent road upgrades and traffic management strategies have already improved journey times, but there is more work to be done.

“Key projects we’ve completed to reduce congestion include building new and wider roads entering and exiting both our international and domestic terminal precincts.

“However, the real game changer will be the new A$2.6 billion Sydney Gateway Road. Anyone who’s travelled to the airport recently will know its construction is well underway. This new toll-free connection will significantly cut travels times from Western Sydney to the airport.”

Aerial from Seth.


A total of 3,010,000 passengers passed through Sydney Airport in May 2023, representing an 85.7% recovery compared to pre-pandemic May 2019.

Domestic passenger traffic increased 5.5% year-on-year with 1,934,000 travellers through the terminals in May. The figure amounts to an 87.3% recovery rate compared to May 2019.

The picture is also looking better for international travel, especially since the start of the return of Chinese travellers, whose numbers continue to rise by the day. Indeed, Chinese passenger numbers recovered to 54% of pre-pandemic levels in May.

In facts and figures, the 1,076,000 passengers accommodated at SYD’s T1 International terminal in May was just 17% down on pre-COVID levels, representing the strongest post-COVID performance for SYD since Australia’s borders re-opened.

Culbert says: “The airport has just posted its strongest international traffic numbers since borders closed in March 2020.

“In the first five months of this year, we’ve had 5.5 million international passengers through Sydney Airport, which is almost three times the number we saw in the same period in 2022.

“The recovery of the China market continues to impress, with passenger numbers on the mainland route increasing seven-fold since the start of the year.

“Capacity in this market will continue to grow with a total of seven airlines flying 48 return services per week between mainland China and Sydney in July.

“This is one of the strongest China recoveries of any international airport globally, which provides a critical boost to Australia’s tourism industry, and the economy more broadly”.


The recent launch of Vietjet flights to SYD was a significant one as it marked a major milestone for Sydney Airport.

“For the first time in our proud 103-year history, we have 50 airlines flying through Sydney Airport. This is an incredible achievement when you consider air travel was almost non-existent through COVID,” enthuses Culbert.

“We now have four airlines flying to Vietnam and, in total, have onboarded six new airlines over the last 12 months, and existing airlines have returned and are continuing to increase capacity, providing great opportunities and choice for the travelling public.

“Attracting airline networks to rebuild capacity to Sydney is key to supporting the recovery of international tourism, business travel, student travel and the broader New South Wales economy.”

Sydney Airport currently has direct flights to around 100 different cities around the world. In July, during the Australian winter holidays, some of the most popular direct routes included Singapore, the US, China, the United Arab Emirates and Indonesia.


Like at most airports across the globe, Culbert and his management team have now had time to reflect on the global pandemic and its impact on SYD and the aviation industry as a whole.

Is it possible to say what lessons, if any, SYD has learnt from the events of the last few years? “Before COVID hit, we knew that aviation was an ecosystem, and all the parts needed to work together seamlessly for the whole system to work, but COVID really reinforced that,” says Culbert.

“We have 800 different businesses operating at SYD. Pre-COVID they employed 30,000 people, and during COVID 15,000 jobs were lost. When all the state-wide travel restrictions eased and the international border re-opened in early 2022, Australians were desperate to travel again, and we were inundated with passengers.

“However, filling all the crucial jobs across the airport to cater for this surge in air travel was a huge challenge, especially as Australia was facing its tightest labour market in almost half a century, and this led to operational challenges in the first half of last year across the entire airport ecosystem.”

After a mammoth recruitment drive, staff shortages at SYD are now a thing of the past with the airport workforce back to full strength.


In February, SYD officially unveiled SYD X, the redeveloped T1 International Terminal luxury shopping precinct, which proudly boasts that it features 20 of world’s most desirable brands all under one roof, including Louis Vuitton’s first retail travel store in the Southern Hemisphere.

“As part of the project, the ceiling height was more than doubled from four metres to nearly 10 metres and the precinct footprint was increased to 2,700sqm,” reveals Culbert.

“We have created a unique luxury shopping destination for international travellers, which we think is one of the best in the world.”

Sydney Airport now also boasts Australia’s first hotel inside an airport, with an Aerotel opening in the T1 International complex in August last year.

“Work also recently finished on the transformation of our T1 International Terminal forecourt,” notes Culbert. “The team has created a beautiful and functional green space where people can gather, celebrate, and reconnect after getting off a long-haul flight or being reunited with friends and family.”

The new SYD sign on the grass near the main terminal exit has certainly proved a huge hit, with tourists flocking to it to get their first selfie in Sydney.

“Enhancing the customer experience remains a central focus for Sydney Airport, and having a wide selection of retailers and food and beverage options is one of the key elements,” adds Culbert.


Despite still very much enjoying the role, Culbert recently announced that after almost six years in the hot-seat at SYD, this one will be his last as he intends to seek a new challenge elsewhere in 2024.

He joined the publicly listed Sydney Airport as CEO in January 2018 from GE and will continue in his role until the end of the year to ensure a smooth transition.

During his time at SYD, he steered Australia’s largest airport through a unique period of challenge, opportunity, and complexity. This of course, included successfully restructuring and operating the airport through the global pandemic, managing and championing the airport through Australia’s largest ever take private transaction (to a consortium led by Global Infrastructure Partners and IFM Investors), and subsequently overseeing SYD’s strong recovery in activity and passenger numbers at the airport.

In response to the news, Sydney Airport chair, David Gonski, said: “We are enormously appreciative of Geoff’s skilled leadership during one of the most significant and disruptive periods in aviation history.

“This includes managing the airport through the pandemic when traffic was devastated by border closures, the recent rapid recovery, and dealing with the largest take-private transaction in Australian corporate history. As a leader, Geoff also built an outstanding team and culture that will endure long after he departs.”

So, why is he going? Culbert simply says: “By the end of the year the airport will be close to fully recovered, and that will be the right time to hand over to a new CEO who will lead the airport through the next phase.

“It’s been a privilege to have led Australia’s premier domestic and international airport since 2018, and to work with such a wonderful team through a unique and challenging period in the airport’s history.

“Sydney Airport has been part of the social and economic fabric of Sydney and NSW for more than 100 years and I’m confident it will continue to play a crucial role for the next hundred.”

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