Birdsville Races Airport Management 2021 - Special Event Zone
Diamantina Shire Council has taken the decision not to operate a Special Event Zone (SEZ) at the Birdsville Airport during the Birdsville Races in 2021. This means that pilots and passengers will not be able to camp under the wing of their plane as has been the case for many years. This has caused concerns amongst the aviation industry and the wider public. The following information is provided as background to Council’s decision.
Council owns and operates the Birdsville airport which includes a 1732m sealed runway, a 1200m unsealed cross strip, sealed apron and GA parking. Pilot activated lighting is available, security fencing is located on the town side and a modern air-conditioned terminal building services the site. The airport is a tier 3 security controlled airport to meet REX’s needs to ensure an ongoing Regular Passenger Transport (RPT) service to Birdsville – a vital link for the community year round. This imposes additional requirements on the operation of the airport.
Council’s goal is for the airport to operate on a cost neutral basis during Birdsville Races week, to manage its risk and ensure the safety of planes and passengers airside.
In the current circumstances, it is not possible to achieve this from landing fees collected during the event after meeting the conditions for a SEZ approved by the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA), and the services provided to the SEZ by council (clean showers and portaloos, rubbish collection, 24/7 security, fenced temporary walkways from SEZ to access gate, UNICOM, ground marshals and more).
In the past, Council has engaged contractors to manage the Birdsville Airport during Race week at considerable cost because Council doesn’t not have the qualified staff available to do it. The nett cost of the airport management contract for 2019 was $31,831. That is without the costs of servicing the SEZ. Removal of the airside camping in the SEZ will reduce Council’s risk and it is expected that Council continuing to provide UNICOM & ground marshalling services using airport fees collected during the week will be cost neutral.
While Council appreciates that this impacts the flying community, the number of planes attending the Birdsville Races has halved in the past 5 years with 68 attending in 2019 and not all of those who fly in camp with their plane.
Council considered other options such as removing all pilot support services (UNICOM, marshalling and SEZ), increasing passenger fees so the users pay for its cost or a combination of these to achieve its goal. The decision made reflects the option which best achieved risk management and cost neutrality goals, whilst minimising the impact on the flying community and the event.
An example. The cost to provide the SEZ in 2019 cost Council around $40,000 when you include all SEZ costs. That’s $40,000 that airport users didn’t pay for and was subsidised by council’s 82 ratepayers. For it to be cost neutral, assuming 200 people camp under their plane wing that’s an extra $200 per person to camp in the SEZ. That comes to $1156 for a light plane of 4 people to land and stay in the SEZ for 3 nights. Whilst some pilots and their passengers may be prepared to pay the extra cost for their ‘right of passage’ or ‘tradition’, it is clear that many simply will not. In comparison, the town common is free, an unpowered camp site at the Birdsville Tourist Park is $420 (4 people) for minimum 7 nights if pre-booked or $60/night for 4 people or a 4 person tent at Tent City is $264 pp for 3 nights including stretcher bed, pillow and sleeping bag, shared amenities & basic kitchen facilities. The plane will be safe and secure behind the airports security fence with landing and parking fees totalling $215 which go towards the UNICOM and ground marshalling costs.
Many people assume that Council makes money out of the Birdsville Races. Wrong. Council’s contribution to the event has averaged $274,000 for each of the last two race meetings and has been more in the past. Bear in mind that the normal population of Birdsville is around 100 which swells to 6,000 for Birdsville Races. The logistics that need to happen behind the scenes before, during and after the event to provide clean public spaces, clean public toilets, rubbish collection, traffic signage, temporary fencing etc are significant. That’s not to mention the additional police, ambulance, fire and health staff that come to town. In our remote area these things cost a lot more and supplies are not readily available. There is no Bunnings or hire store around the corner.
Any profit from tent city sales is put back into the hire of temporary fencing, generators and amenities hired and transported to Birdsville for the week, plus site preparation costs.
The world has changed and yes, change has made its way to Birdsville. This is not the first change. The old timers would remember when there was no fence around the Birdsville airport, people rode around in the back of utes, beer cans were knee deep outside the hotel and there were no breathalysers. All of that has changed. Attendees in 2019 were outraged that the Birdsville Hotel erected a security fence around their extended liquor licence area to comply with their liquor licence conditions. This is something they had to do and will continue to do in 2021 but in a different way. We will also have to meet COVID restrictions this year so no doubt more things will change.
One thing that hasn’t changed is the spirit of fun and comradery that all those attend the Birdsville Races experience and the lasting memories they take with them. The Council, the race club, emergency services and the local business will continue do everything they can to put on a great event while keeping everyone safe at the same time. It’s an iconic event, it always will be.