Western Queensland tourism operators and mayors are among those applauding the decision by the senate to undertake an inquiry into rural and regional air routes and prices.
The Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Committee (RRAT) will focus on the social and economic impacts of fare costs and service delivery for non-metropolitan communities, and is expected to report back to the senate in March 2018.
Tony Martin, the CEO of the Qantas Founders Outback Museum at Longreach, said the many multi-award winning tourism products offered in western Queensland couldn’t grow their international markets because of the cost of airfares to the region.
“These are people who won’t sit in a car for days but they have the dollars for a two or three night visit.
“When they do a price comparison, it costs them the same amount to fly to Fiji or Bali. We are really hurting because of this.”
For Blackall-Tambo mayor, Andrew Martin, the issues were broader than pricing.
He would like to see the terms of the contract of the regulated route between Qantas and the state government, signed he said, “in the heat of the oil and gas boom, when there were eight or 10 flights into Roma a day”.
“I think you’ll find Qantas’ biggest customers are government employees, and they’re all signed up to frequent flyer programs,” he said.
Andrew believed the agreement was one of the keys to pricing policies, which he had many questions about.
“If it’s three days until a flight and there’s half a dozen seats left, they get dearer, I believe on the understanding that people who book late are desperate to travel and will pay whatever,” he said.
“But, if they let in competition, I’ve seen figures from Geraldton in Western Australia, where prices went up.
“We are just being bent over a barrel here, especially at Blackall and Tambo, which are further from Charleville and Longreach than the other towns in the region.”
He wanted the inquiry to explore the feasibility of extra routes, such as Brisbane-Roma-Blackall, and to look at the needs of patients taken to Rockhampton by the RFDS, and how they returned west.
“Getting back from Rockhampton is more likely to kill you than the original ailment at the moment,” he said.
“At the end of the day, shouldn’t Qantas’ business model say, if there’s more seats, that brings more tourists, which brings more revenue, and more flights.”
Both Tony and Andrew were skeptical of whether the inquiry would bring real change.
“The state government would have to change legislation for regulated routes, and that’s up to happen in 2019,” Tony said. “We’ve got to look at who sets the standards and parameters around cost setting for anything to change.”
Andrew said inquiries generally kept a lot of public servants employed, but he hoped some proper recommendations would come from it, that the government could make use of.
Terms of inquiry
RRAT committee co-chair, Queensland LNP senator Barry O’Sullivan, said airfare costs and service reliability were vital issues for rural communities.
“I have travelled tens of thousands of kilometres across Queensland since I became a senator in 2014,” he said.
“One of the issues that always draws strong discussion is the cost of airfares and reliability of air services across rural and regional air routes.
“Currently, some states and territories provide subsidies; there are some allocated seats for locals; there are additional costs placed on the airlines – these are all factors that we need to examine closely to understand how regional airlines provide their current services.
“Then we need to examine the impacts of these factors.”
Senator O’Sullivan said he commenced work on an inquiry following approaches from LNP members of the Queensland parliament, including the Member for Gregory, Lachlan Millar, who called for such an inquiry last month.
Inquiry terms of reference encompass the operation, regulation and funding of air route service delivery to rural, regional and remote communities, looking at social and economic impacts, different legal, regulatory, policy and pricing frameworks and practices.