Exposed: Sydney Airport opal loophole revealed

Transport NSW

A little-known loophole in Sydney’s Opal card is allowing travellers a nearly free ride to Sydney Airport’s domestic and international stations – and it’s costing the NSW Government an estimated $1.3 million in lost revenue.

The trick lets users skip the $13.80 ‘access fee’ levied at the privately-owned and operated Airport Link stations and pay barely $3.50 for their entire journey to the airport.

It’s come about because the Opal system lets travellers tap-on to start their trip with a credit of only $3.38, and lets them tap-off at the other end with a negative balance.

Savvy airport train travellers buy an Opal card – which requires no up-front deposit – and choose not to register it, and then use the card as normal until the balance is no less than $3.38.

At that point they can use the card to travel to Sydney Airport domestic or international stations, exit those stations with their card in negative balance and then simply throw their Opal card away.

For example, a peak-hour trip from Chatswood in Sydney’s north to the domestic airport station costs $18 – of which $13.80 is the station access fee – but an Opal card with a balance of just $3.40 makes the trip cost less than a cup coffee.

The trick doesn’t work on the return journey, however, as the airport stations require any Opal card to have sufficient credit to cover the access fee.

This loophole has resulted in a revenue sinkhole for the NSW Government.

“Unregistered Opal cards with negative balances cannot be recovered unless the passenger adds value to top up the card,” the NSW Audit Office says, because cardholders can simply “discard their negative balance cards.”

A likely fix will be to raise the minimum tap-on amount or charge a purchase price for each Opal card, as is done with many similar transport cards around the world.