Environment Minister Robert Hill today gave the go-ahead for the next stage in the development of a long-awaited Australian Antarctic air transport system.

Releasing a report on recent investigations into a direct air link between Australia and Antarctica, Senator Hill announced today that Casey station, 3430 kilometres south-west of Hobart, is the most likely site for any main Australian airfield in Antarctica.

Studies to date, including consideration of potential environmental impacts, have pointed to an air transport system involving flying wheeled aircraft from Hobart to a compressed snow runway near Casey, with smaller "feeder" aircraft providing a link to other stations and remote research areas. This intercontinental terminus would be supplemented by an alternative blue-ice runway in the Bunger Hills, 440km west of Casey.

Field investigators last summer used a Twin Otter aircraft to assess potential landing sites and gain experience of flying fixed wing aircraft along proposed routes and elsewhere in Antarctica. The work indicated that a compressed snow runway near Casey would offer the best long-term Antarctic air transport solution and that a suitable blue-ice runway site is available in the Bunger Hills to provide an alternative landing site.

"During this last summer I had a team evaluating potential runway sites, aircraft and infrastructure for our Antarctic air link," Senator Hill said. "After considering the results of this work, I have asked the Australian Antarctic Division to pursue further the feasibility of a combined Casey-Bunger Hills air transport system. This will require further work on operational aspects and the cost-benefits of such a system, and a study of potential environmental impacts."

A runway site near Casey would give scientists easy vehicle access to the established support facilities at the station, and would offer an intercontinental flight distance that is shorter than the Christchurch- McMurdo distance flown regularly by the US and New Zealand Antarctic programs. The Bunger Hills runway would offer an alternative landing site for flights from Australia and a staging point for intracontinental flights to our other Antarctic stations and field bases.

It is expected that a Hercules C130 aircraft will be used to trial the Bunger Hills blue ice runway this coming summer. A decision on whether to establish an air transport system will follow completion of the trial flights and an environmental impact assessment.