As I developed and defined my research question and proposal for my thesis, I found myself increasingly flummoxed in trying to define what determines an airport to be secondary.

A substantial part of this problem lies in the fact that there is currently no formal definition of a secondary airport. Generally speaking, a secondary airport is an under-utilised airport that complements a primary airport or airport system in a metropolitan region. Airports can be close Sydney International (Kingsford Smith) to Sydney city, or separated from the city centre by quite a distance, Girona to Barcelona (94km) or Skavsta to Stockholm (106km).

Herein lies the first challenge with defining secondary airports. What determines primary and secondary status?

Shanghai’s Hongqiao Airport is considered by many to be the city’s ‘secondary airport’, however the airport is Shanghai’s primary domestic airport. Pudong is Shanghai’s primary international gateway and serves seven million more passengers a year than Hongqiao, but Hongqiao is also significantly closer to Shanghai than Pudong – 13km compared to 30km.

Beijing is another excellent case in point. The city is serviced by two main airports, Beijing Capital and Nanyuan, Beijing’s ‘second’ airport in the south of the city, as well as several military facilities. Nanyuan is technically a military airport, however it supports limited commercial operations by a single airline, China United. The airport does not operate to relieve capacity, supports no LCC operations, and the same military operations also operate into Beijing’s government airport in the west of the city as well as Capital Airport. Nanyuan certainly isn’t a primary airport, but it doesn’t fulfill the characteristics of a secondary airport either.

Nanyuan Airport still exudes old world Soviet charm.

Taking a regional view of primary and secondary status clouds the definition even further. Nadi International Airport in Fiji, is most definitely the primary international airport for Fiji, but could be considered a secondary airport for the Oceania region, serving substantially less traffic than other regional ‘gateways’.

Hamilton in New Zealand could be considered a secondary airport to Auckland, which lies 126km away. It could also be considered the primary airport for the city of Hamilton, offering significant air services to support the city and capable of relieving 2 other airports within a 60 kilometre proximity.

Hamilton’s runway will be extended to 3000m, putting it in line with primary airports in the region.

The on again, off again public discussion disaster that surrounds Sydney’s second airport is, unsurprisingly on again, and more frenetic than ever. Surrounded on 3 sides by housing, the airport and the housing next to it lies within the bounds of the electorate of Grayndler – a seat held by the current Federal Minister for Infrastructure, Anthony Albanese. Sydney’s movements are capped at movements 80 per hour, a limit being dubiously enforced by said minister. Situationally speaking, Sydney Airport is stuck, unable to expand, and predicted to reach its ultimate capacity sometime between 2025 and 2030.

Sydney is desperate for a secondary airport to prevent the city falling by the wayside. There is a bunch of options available, some close, others such as Canberra, a tad far, but not inconceivable 300km away.

Supporting infrastructure concerns aside, Canberra Airport is entirely capable of acting as a secondary airport, but Anthony insists Canberra cannot be Sydney’s secondary airport because “there’s nowhere in the world where an airport is used as a secondary airport more than 100km from the city”. Clearly Albanese has never flown low-cost in Europe before.

As the Airline Business Blog helpfully points out “Billund in Demark is a secondary airport to both Copenhagen and Hamburg even though they are separated by a distance of some 300km. Billund, could also be considered the primary airport for the city of Billund itself, as it does provide secondary, relief service for another airport nearby”.

According to Anthony that can’t be possible, ‘there’s nowhere in the world where you fly into a major global city and have to travel 300km to get to that city”. Anthony seems as confused by primary and secondary airport status as I found myself.