Aussie airports to introduce fast-track clearance

Passengers walk towards the departures area at Sydney International Airport, Australia, on March 23, 2016.
Passengers walk towards the departures area at Sydney International Airport, Australia, on March 23, 2016.PHOTO: REUTERS

Passengers will pay to skip immigration queues; aviation, tourism operators cheer plan

Travellers at Australian airports will be able to pay to skip immigration queues and enjoy a fast-tracked "premium" service as part of a plan aimed at improving the experience for higher-class and business passengers.

In a move welcomed by the tourism sector, the federal government has revealed plans to introduce a paid fast-tracked processing system for international visitors in a scheme that would initially be available in Sydney, Melbourne and Perth. No proposed fee for the service has yet been set.

Australia's Immigration Minister Peter Dutton said passengers using the service would still have to pass through standard Customs, immigration, biosecurity and aviation security screenings.

A spokesman for the minister said there would be no impact on the travelling public or existing airport arrangements.

"The services would be on a user-pay basis and travellers using these services will be processed under established clearance procedure," the spokesman told Fairfax Media on Wednesday.

The proposal, outlined in last week's federal Budget, follows growing concerns about long waits at Australian airports. Government data has reportedly found that long queue delays are the biggest source of complaints to Customs officials. 

The proposal, outlined in last week's federal Budget, follows growing concerns about long waits at Australian airports. Government data has reportedly found that long queue delays are the biggest source of complaints to Customs officials. 

Sydney Airport said premium services were "standard practice" internationally and it had already begun working with the government to introduce such a service.

"Passengers frequently request premium border processing options, which is a standard practice in major airports globally," a spokesman told The Sunday Times.

"Sydney Airport is pleased to see the federal government prioritising passenger facilitation and is working closely with the government to develop an initial concept for premium border processing."

Melbourne Airport also welcomed the proposal.

The government did not say how much revenue it could raise via the system, saying in its Budget papers it could not do so "due to commercial confidentiality".

The Tourism and Transport Forum, which represents tourism and aviation operators, welcomed the proposal, likening it to similar services elsewhere, such as London. 

"It's no different to an aeroplane having economy, business and first class," said Ms Margy Osmond, head of the Tourism and Transport Forum, on ABC Radio.

"What we have to do is look around at our competitors in the region and elsewhere and understand that (in) some of our most important growth markets, for example China, there is a portion that would like to be able to access premium processing."

The move will also be welcomed by Australia's gambling operators, which have urged the government to introduce premium airport services to help attract big-spending high rollers, particularly from China. Some airports in Australia already offer various premium services such as express lanes for high-level frequent fliers or business or first-class travellers passing through immigration.

An Australian tourism expert, Dr David Beirman from the University of Technology Sydney, said the proposed premium service would appeal to business passengers and was unlikely to prompt a public backlash.

"Leisure passengers often want to save money and time is not as consequential for them," he told The Sunday Times. "The people at whom it is targeted will be those who are already frequent fliers or premium-class travellers. For business travellers, they love anything that saves them time."

Dr Beirman said extra costs could potentially be included as a ticket surcharge, possibly as an optional extra offered to travellers in certain classes. "If it has an impact on airfares at all, it would only be quite small," he said.  "The principle of differential processing has been there for a number of years."

Australian airports have been seeking to cut border processing times in recent years, including self-service check-in and gates which offer automated passport control. Several passengers at Melbourne Airport told ABC News they would be willing to pay between A$10 (S$10) to A$50 to access a fast-tracked service.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 08, 2016, with the headline 'Aussie airports to introduce fast-track clearance'. Print Edition | Subscribe