Meet the 30,000 workers who power Australia’s busiest airport every day

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As you fly over the harbor and arrive at Sydney’s Kingsford Smith Airport, the dazzling view of the blue ocean washing over the heart of the city makes the claustrophobia of a window seat tolerable.

For the 100,000 or so travelers who must endure a hectic mix of snaking queues, overpriced coffees, overweight bags and violated personal space before arriving or leaving the city each day, the fleeting view of a glittering Sydney stands out.

But hidden from travelers, a “mini-city” powers Australia’s busiest airport, where more than 30,000 people work every day. Some operate intricate networks of luggage conveyor belts, others transport cargo to and from planes or pump hundreds of thousands of liters of jet fuel into jumbo jets in a matter of minutes.

Then there are those who work to ensure air travel. In addition to air marshals and border security officials, there are intelligence workers investigating potentially corrupt airline workers, and agents with dogs trained to sniff out hard drives, memory cards and other contraband.

While travelers will see officers with Tasers and rifles, most won’t notice the bird watchers with shotguns or the plane spotters in the air traffic control tower, whose sole responsibility is to count aircraft movements. with a pen and a clipboard.

Then there are those who put on plastic gloves before going through a potentially dangerous bag of lost sex toys.

eye in the sky

For a facility that relies on more than 800 companies and organizations that coordinate with military precision, it makes sense to have Greg Hay as the airport’s general manager of operations, given that he previously served in the Air Force.

A large part of Hay’s morning is spent studying weather reports, and not just from Sydney.

“Climate is a key factor here,” says Hay. “A typhoon passing through the Hong Kong region can cause a lot of conflicts in the calendar here.”

On windy days, air traffic controllers must change the direction in which the airport’s two runways operate.

Inclement weather may wreak havoc at Sydney Airport due to a strict curfew that halts commercial passenger traffic between 11pm and 6am for nearby residents relief from loud noise.

The airport, built 104 years ago just 8 kilometers from the CBD, also has slot restrictions, meaning there can be no more than 80 take-off or landing movements per hour, counted in 15-minute increments.

If weather conditions at distant airports delay incoming flights or local storms delay outgoing planes, there is very little change to the schedule.

“All it takes is a few things to start getting some of those intricate details out of control,” says Hay.

The curfew and hourly movement limit are strictly monitored. Airlines that violate the curfew without permission are fined $313,000, and to ensure the curfew is respected, monitors sit in the air traffic control tower marking movements with pens and clipboards.

The airport’s outgoing chief executive, Geoff Culbert, has called on the government to modernize its laws and slot system. The airport does not have the power to assign slots to airlines.

He says fear of breaking the law means the airport routinely limits movements even below the legal limit of 80 per hour.

Culbert is also among aviation figures who have accused Qantas, Jetstar and Virgin Australia of “hoarding space” by scheduling more services than they intend to operate to block competitors and then strategically canceling additional flights.

Related: Sydney Airport CEO accuses Qantas of strategically canceling flights to block competition

Cancellation rates from Sydney are routinely the highest in the country, and critics point to this as evidence of misuse of slots, although major airlines have repeatedly denied any wrongdoing.

The federal government has yet to respond to a review recommending reforms to the laws. Meanwhile, Hay must ensure facilities run smoothly even in times of major disruption. He says on days with particularly bad weather, it can feel like a race to get all the flights in and out before the curfew goes into effect.

organized chaos

In the period between December 14 last year and January 3, an estimated 2.6 million passengers traveled through airport terminals, a sign that the recovery from the pandemic is complete.

“The week before Christmas is a very busy week for us,” says Hay. “The check-in halls are packed, we have passengers everywhere.”

In December, 3 million pieces of luggage traveled through an intricate system in the basement of terminals that delivers bags from conveyor belts at check-in counters, through security checkpoints, to their correct planes.

“They go through a security scan, then they go into a big sorter that determines which flight, a bit like the end of Toy Story 2, where there are tons of bags going around, you know, almost on an underground roller coaster. “Up here,” says Hay.

The bags are assigned to containers and transported to planes. An unofficial memorial wall of bag tags that have fallen off during this process represents a fraction of the pieces that are ultimately mishandled or lost.

Hays says most don’t realize how many staff (more than 30,000 people each day) are needed to keep the airport running. This includes ground handlers, cleaners, engineers and caterers.

“People often describe the airport as a mini-city,” he says.

One of Hay’s top colleagues, Bjorn Nielsen, director of aviation licensing and aviation safety, handles less visible tasks.

Keeping birds away from airplanes is an important safety issue. US Airways Flight 1549 crashed into a flock of birds minutes after taking off from New York’s LaGuardia Airport in 2009, forcing it to make an emergency landing in the Hudson River.

Related: Eyes in the sky: air traffic controllers monitor 11% of the world’s airspace

Wildlife management teams monitor grass areas bordering the runways. They will use sirens, loud noises, pyrotechnics, a gas cannon and even speakers that imitate the distress calls of different species to scare away the birds. If all that fails, Nielsen says crews can use firearms to keep birds away from plane engines.

“Everyone thinks the best way is to go out with a shotgun or a pistol… it’s the last resort. We will do it, but there are certainly better ways,” she states.

Lost property

In 2022, more than 4,000 lost items were returned to their owners, while some 3,000 unclaimed items were auctioned, something the airport does every year to raise money for charities.

Most of the lost goods she keeps are mundane: toothbrushes and toiletries abandoned in bathrooms, duty-free alcohol, laptops and jewelry. But special edition Beatles records, circular saw, hedge trimmer and deck chair were among the most unusual items auctioned last year.

Katrina Lee handles lost and found in her role as airport service center manager.

“There are some more colorful items that we found…personal pleasure items,” Lee says. “We had a bag that was completely full of items of that nature, and the lady who called to inform you… had no qualms about calling.

“[When] They are what floats your boat, you want them back.”

Lee jokes that with such discoveries, staff are careful to put on protective clothing: “They kind of open it up and make a decision about whether it’s a glove bag or not.”

Sniffing out crime

While the television show Border Security may put Border Force officers in the spotlight, the Australian Federal Police have an important task of overseeing law enforcement at the airport.

The most visible arm of the AFP at the airport is its canine team, which can detect drugs and explosives. However, its evolution to detect cash and digital contraband has put law enforcement on the front lines against organized crime.

“They are very interesting, they can find anything from a phone to a micro sim, which is quite small,” says Senator Const Jade Wall. She says cryptocurrency, child abuse material, money laundering and terrorism planning data are the main concern for smuggling of hard drives and data cards, which trained dogs can detect even deep in the luggage.

However, most threats are due to passenger behavior.

In fact, inside AFP headquarters at the airport, there is a simulated airplane cockpit where officers can practice detaining unruly passengers in their seats. It is also equipped with a business class section.

“I can assure you that some of them come from business class, of course they do,” Detective Superintendent Morgen Blunden, commander of the airport police, told AFP.

“Alcohol certainly, if not the primary or sole cause, makes a situation that could otherwise be resolved without incident much worse.”

If travelers resist arrest, Tasers may be used. While most will be familiar with using remote Tasers to fire spikes that send an electrical current through the central nervous system, The Guardian understands that the devices can also jab into muscles at shorter range.

While officers at the airport carry a standard Glock pistol, some are trained to use larger rifles, such as the Daniels Defense MK 18. Officers must constantly train and retrain to use them.

Deterrence against terrorist activity is a key reason for highly visible, short-barreled rifles.

“The more we can market the capabilities that we have, hopefully the message will get out that ‘I’m not doing anything at the airport,’” Blunden said.

There are also many desk officials at the airport, including intelligence personnel tasked with identifying and preventing what are known as “trusted insiders”: airline employees who use their access to help organized crime.

Police even maintain a presence during curfew periods. “It doesn’t close completely,” Blunden said. “It’s a huge job.”

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