A concern that “resident fares” were being used by people other than genuine residents was one of the issues listed when Senator Barry O’Sullivan met with disgruntled air travellers in Blackall on Saturday.
Much of the conversation with Mr O’Sullivan, the co-chair of the Senate Standing Committee on Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport looking into the social and economic impacts of fare costs and service delivery for non-metropolitan communities, revolved around reducing the cost of air travel by making more cheaper resident fares available.
It was initially suggested by Sonja Doyle, who said at least two discounted seats needed to be set aside on each of the daily services between Brisbane and the Blackall/Barcaldine/Longreach destination for compassionate travel.
“Pricing can be a problem, particularly if you have to do it at short notice,” she said.
The vexed question of Qantas’ refusal to disclose how many resident fares are offered, slammed by the Member for Gregory, Lachlan Millar, in March last year, was raised again at Blackall.
Western Queenslanders had told Mr Millar they were very difficult to obtain but when asked how many were available at each price point, a Qantas spokeswoman said they didn’t disclose that “simply for commercial reasons”.
Mr O’Sullivan on Saturday vowed to get answers to information Qantas wasn’t prepared to disclose, through the inquiry process.
More information would also be sought on the suggestion that resident fares were being made available to people other than those whose usual place of residence was in eligible shires.
“I interrogated Qantas in my office but I’m not satisfied,” Mr O’Sullivan said.
“There seem to be some for contractors not living here, and that’s making less resident fares available.
“I have clear evidence where this is being abused.”
He had been told by Qantas that an address on a driver’s licence or a rates notice was proof of residency.
The time set aside in Blackall on Saturday, as well as in Charleville and Barcaldine on Monday, were made possible by Mr O’Sullivan travelling to western Queensland before the Senate hearings in Longreach this Tuesday and Cloncurry on Thursday, to hear personally from affected people in other communities.
Fares ten times greater than comparable urban prices and medical travel black holes were the main focus of the 40 people who attended the Blackall meeting.
They had as many questions to ask as comments to share, highlighting the lack of transparency surrounding pricing on the regulated route between Brisbane and Blackall, Barcaldine and Longreach.
Mr O’Sullivan explained regulated route agreements between governments and airlines as being necessary on sectors that would otherwise be unprofitable to operate in but which were deemed essential services, in response to queries about uncapping the number of resident fares on those routes.
While saying that market forces played a big role in ticket pricing generally, citing the cost of a ticket to Melbourne for the AFL grand final, he acknowledged that there was a difference between discretionary travel and last minute travel brought on by personal emergencies.
“Airlines have an algorithm that explains why they charge more the closer it gets to the date of travel, which ensures they cover costs.
“Anything after that is pure profit, but that shouldn’t make any difference on a regulated route – that’s what our committee is working out.”
@Qantas just read about the inquiry into high regional airfares in WA, & noted how applicable the negative findings & complaints were to QLD. We drive between Brisbane & Gladstone >12 times yearly as high airfares obviate flying, 24+ fares. You lose revenue and we get exhausted.— ValentinePontifex (@AntoEvans) November 30, 2017
His words echoed his introductory statement at Blackall when he said there were reasons why airfares to western Queensland would be higher but that they didn’t account for a differential of $1600.
Mr O’Sullivan said that while state governments had worked with airlines to determine a fair price under subsidy agreements, it was “impossible to monitor flight by flight, and so it’s open to abuse”.
“I put the airlines on notice in Darwin – we will be subpoenaing all that information.”
Juggling resident fares with the needs of the rest of the travelling public, and ensuring the service remained a viable proposition for the airlines involved, were highlighted, as well as the disappointment felt by many paying top dollar for a seat, only to board and find a third of the seats unoccupied.
“If the aircraft is full, there’s not going to be any resident fares available,” Iain Scholes said.
“But if it’s not full, there should be some available.
“They should be trying to fill the plane – we want to fly.”
Justin Hauff shared what many saw as a failing of the resident fare offer by airlines to alleviate the cost of a flight, in that they needed to be booked so far in advance.
“Who can look down the track five months,” he said. “If it doesn’t rain you can’t go and then you’ve done your money.”
Medical travel trouble
Lots of concerns about lack of air connectivity between Blackall/Tambo and Rockhampton for people returning from medical emergencies as Senator Barry O'Sullivan visits privately alongside regional air services inquiry hearings @RRCouncil#Qantas#REX#Virginpic.twitter.com/lFW36bTzSs— Sally Cripps (@sallyQCL) April 7, 2018
Blackall and Tambo’s invidious position as the only two towns serviced by the RFDS-Rockhampton hospital relationship with no direct air, rail or sealed road connection for patients needing to return after an emergency evacuation, was raised by Blackall-Tambo Regional Council mayor, Andrew Martin.
He cited the example of a backpacker working for him, who took over two days and money out of their own pocket to return to Tambo after being medevaced to Rockhampton.
The public transport options, either flights, train travel or bus services, took roundabout routes, mostly via the east coast and Brisbane, to get back to Tambo.
The anomaly of having only the emergency outbound trip paid for under the Patient Travel Subsidy Scheme, where scheduled medical travel is paid both ways, was also raised.
Similar concerns by the Royal Flying Doctor Service, “stressing about getting people back”, were the catalyst for the current east-west air route push, according to its main proponent, Rockhampton Regional Council airport spokesman, Neil Fisher.
Cr Fisher said it was the reason his council had begun working with western councils for a central Queensland air link.
He said while there had been great support for the idea from councils and services, Translink “didn’t want to know us”.
The state government agency is responsible for the coordination of public transport across Queensland.
The RRAT committee held public hearings in Broome, Alice Springs and Darwin last week, where the financial muscle of large mining companies to book whole flights, and super-remote concerns, were aired, according to Mr O’Sullivan.
He said the inquiry had months yet to run – it’s set to report back to federal Parliament on September 20 – and would take months to “get in behind the dynamics of airline pricing systems”.
The big airlines will be the final principal witnesses to the inquiry, and Mr O’Sullivan said the cost of travelling at certain times of the year would be easier to fix than overall pricing schemes.
“I loathe the word subsidy, except when it comes to the bush,” he said. “But this country spends billions subsidising commuters in our cities, and I suspect that, for not a lot of money, governments can involve themselves in your travel needs.”
While decisions about air service regulation are made by state governments, Mr O’Sullivan said the inquiry’s recommendations would be taken to COAG via the federal Transport Minister, for state cooperation.
“Particularly where there’s federal government funding involved, it does give the federal government a bit of muscle to say to the states, look, here’s the sort of funding we give you, remembering that we federally fund something like 900 aerodromes around the country.
“So it’s a case of saying, look, we’re going to tie this funding to particular outcomes.
“I can’t understand why a state would resist recommendations that improve the delivery of this essential service.
“I expect it’ll be a very cooperative bipartisan approach to solving the problems.”