Australia’s brand new blue ice runway in Antarctica is on track for the first regular intercontinental flights in 2007, the Minister for the Environment and Heritage, Senator Ian Campbell said today.

Speaking on the return to Hobart of the construction crew aboard the research vessel Aurora Australis, Senator Campbell said the project was a significant undertaking and the work done over the short summer season on the four-kilometre Wilkins runway and other infrastructure had exceeded expectations.

“This is great news as we prepare to fly aircraft from Australia to Antarctica as a regular and permanent part of the Australian Government’s support of scientific research on the ‘frozen continent',” Senator Campbell said.

“The air link will make Australian research in Antarctica more efficient, allowing scientists and support personnel to spend less time travelling by ship and more time on their projects.

“The success of this season’s runway construction confirms that we will be able to run test flights next season in preparation for the introduction of regular flights from 2007, so long as we have similar weather conditions.”

Senator Campbell said this season’s work at Wilkins was a major accomplishment given the particularly inhospitable conditions faced by the construction crew.

“Five hardy souls spent the best part of five months in temporary shed accommodation, with nothing in the way of home comforts and had to melt ice to get water for their tea and coffee. They were supported by additional personnel who rotated through the site from Casey station,” he said.

“The crew toiled for long hours in freezing conditions and blizzards lasting several days, to ensure the work was completed on time.”

Earlier in the season, $3 million of specialist equipment — most of it sourced through Tasmanian businesses — was delivered by ship to build the blue-ice runway on an area of flat glacial ice.

Senator Campbell said a glacial ice runway was the best option because its impact on the environment was minimal.

The Australian Government has allocated $46.3 million over four years to construct the runway and to establish the Australia-Antarctica air link.

More than 100 expeditioners returned to Hobart today on board Aurora Australis bringing to an end the 2005–06 summer season of research in Antarctica.