The new ‘blue ice’ runway, which will enable Australia for the first time to be bridged to Antarctica for large aircraft travel, is nearing completion in preparation for trial flights later this year, the Minister for the Environment and Heritage, Senator Ian Campbell said today.

Construction on the 4km ice runway — the largest runway in Australia — has been underway since last year.

Senator Campbell said that the Wilkins ice runway, part of the Australian Government’s $46.3 million intercontinental Antarctic airlink commitment, is nearing completion in preparation for initial demonstration flights in December.

Teams of expeditioners have been working on the runway for weeks at a time over the past year, sometimes in freezing temperatures hovering around −40°C.

A runway construction team will arrive in early October to continue proof rolling and compacting the runway surface ahead of the trial flights.

Senator Campbell said the direct five-hour airlink has been a long-held dream of researchers and support personnel, particularly those who cannot afford to spend weeks at sea.

“The new air transport service will provide a far more efficient way of getting people to and from Antarctica,” Senator Campbell said.

“This new service will certainly change the way we engage with Antarctica and while the new airlink is designed specifically for research purposes, I am sure it will prompt much discussion about future plans for an expanded tourism industry to the frozen continent.

“We already know that thousands of tourists visit Antarctica every year. It is predicted that around 200,000 people will visit Antarctica each year leaving from South America alone over the next 20 years,” he said.

Announced as part of the Australian Government’s $3.2 billion commitment to the environment in the 2004–05 Budget, the Australia-Antarctica intercontinental airlink will ensure Australia remains an international leader, by supporting and enhancing our research capabilities.

Senator Campbell said a decision on an aircraft for the coming season’s test flights would be announced soon.