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Airports defend operations during pandemic

·3-min read

Australia's leading airports are defending their operations after the competition watchdog said the regional monopolies had made a "surprising" profit last financial year, even as travel plunged amid COVID-19 restrictions.

Sydney Airport made $148.5 million in 2020-21, while Brisbane made $48.1 million and Perth earned $27.9 million, the Australian Competition & Consumer Commission said on Monday.

But the airports say the ACCC has confused its figures and its "misleading" report lambasts businesses that suffered through a "nightmare" two years, while only receiving a fraction of the government support as others in the aviation industry.

A spokesman for Brisbane airport said while BNE posted a "statutory profit" simply due to unrealised property value increases, the corporation actually suffered an operating loss in fiscal 2021.

Perth Airport said the ACCC had confused "profit" and EBITA (earnings before interest, earnings before interest, taxes, and amortisation) and that it had actually suffered a $64.5 million loss in FY2021.

The commission also included profit from property operations, which shouldn't be included in an analysis of aviation operations, Perth Airport said.

"The aviation sector has been through a nightmare two years due to the pandemic and the impact on airports of COVID has been brutal," chief executive Kevin Brown said.

Sydney Airport CEO Geoff Culbert said the airport lost $1.3 billion in revenue and provided millions in relief to its partners while keeping the airport open for returning Australians and essential workers.

"The report creates the impression that Sydney Airport profited during COVID, when the reality is we recorded significant losses, had to raise $2 billion from the market, $800 million in debt, and let go a quarter of our workforce just to survive," Mr Culbert said.

"We are proud of our behaviour through the pandemic and the principled way we supported our commercial partners, many of whom can attribute their survival to our actions."

The ACCC report said while the country's four leading airports suffered during the pandemic, most still turned a profit. Melbourne's airport had an operating loss of $106.9 million because of stricter lockdowns in Victoria.

Overall the four airports had a combined operating profit in 2020-21 of about five per cent of what it was in the last full financial year before the pandemic, but the ACCC said it was surprised the three airports were able to turn a profit at all.

"Despite severely reduced aeronautical revenues, Sydney, Brisbane and Perth airports were still able to turn a profit last financial year as a result of reduced operating costs," ACCC Commissioner Anna Brakey said.

"This is a surprising result given the impact of the pandemic on the aviation industry, and it demonstrates the resilience of the airports."

The commission said it was carefully monitoring airports' profit margins as the industry recovers from the pandemic, since the airports are regional monopolies with substantial market power and because the aviation industry is critical to the Australian economy.

Before the pandemic, the ACCC had also raised its concerns about the high sustained profit margins enjoyed by the four airports.

Mr Brown said he was "proud of our team" for keeping its runways and terminals operating at a loss, especially for the fly-in, fly-out workers in the state's resources sector, despite suffering significant financial losses

"We did the right thing by Western Australia, our partners and the national economy," he said.

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