If taxpayers’ money is spent on saving airlines ailing in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, is there a chance all air travellers can expect fairer pricing regardless of where they live?
It’s a question being posed by State Opposition MP Lachlan Millar, whose seat of Gregory in central-western Queensland takes in key regional centres where plane passengers are often hit by exorbitant fares on domestic routes.
He argues that if Australian taxpayers are going to have a share in owning an airline, they should at least expect strict guarantees on lower airfares and better services.
This is especially the case in rural and regional Queensland, where a larger percentage of the State’s population lives outside the capital city and distances between towns and large service centres are greater.
In the past, it’s not been uncommon for a return flight from Longreach to Brisbane to cost more than a return flight from Brisbane to Los Angeles on the same carrier.
Experienced and canny flyers from our more remote corners of the State have found some ingenious ways to control the high charges.
Stories abound that frequent fly-in-fly-out workers in Mount Isa will book flights to Auckland via Brisbane rather than book direct to Brisbane because the addition of the international destination will significantly reduce the fare. Once the plane lands in Brisbane they just don’t board the connecting flight.
It’s stories like these that highlight the not-so-secret secret shared prolifically on social media that airlines have been inflating fares on the more sparsely populated rural and regional routes to contain fares on the high-volume routes between capital cities and international ports.
Millar puts it another way:
“For too long airlines like Virgin have been using rural flight routes to line their pockets at the expense of rural and regional Queenslanders,” he said this week in a media statement.
Virgin Australia has come top of mind as the Federal Government holds firm on denying the airline a $1.4 billion bailout to save it from collapse.
The Morrison Government has already announced supportive measures in waived fees and charges for the Australian aviation industry of nearly $1 billion.
Treasurer Josh Frydenberg told ABC Radio on Thursday that it was in Australia’s interests to have two major domestic carriers but the Commonwealth had no appetite for owning an airline.
He said the majority shareholders of Virgin Australia, which include Etihad Airways, Singapore Airlines and China’s HNA Group, have “deep pockets” and should be coming to the airline’s aid.
The Morrison Government has since walked back from its hardline stance as reported by the ABC overnight, offering both Qantas and Virgin a $165 million package to keep routes between Australian capital cities viable.
Virgin says it will be enough to stay in operation for a further eight weeks, allowing the business to reinstate 200 staff including pilots, cabin crew and ground staff.
The package will keep the prospect of a full nationalisation of the airline alive and with it an opportunity to deliver a more equitable pricing structure in the skies.
“If the taxpayer’s wallet is going to open, then the Federal Government needs to get an iron clad guarantee that cheaper airfares and better services will be provided by Virgin to rural and regional Queensland,” Millar said.
“It’s time to get some bang for our buck for regional Queensland from any corporate bailouts.”
Queensland is no stranger to government supported or subsidised air services.
The State Government currently underwrites several routes serviced by Rex Airlines, which was also on the brink of collapse last month before it received the benefit of a $298 million lifeline to the regional aviation sector from the Federal Government.
The airline claims it is still in a precarious financial position as the coronavirus pandemic restricts travel and plays havoc with schedules.
A spokesman from the Transport Minister Mark Bailey’s office said the amount provided by the Queensland Government on an annual basis to Rex Airlines was “commercial in confidence”.
The Queensland taxpayer subsidised routes include:
- Brisbane-Toowoomba-St George-Cunnamulla-Thargomindah
- Brisbane-Toowoomba-Charleville-Quilpie-Windorah-Birdsville-Bedourie-Boulia-Mount Isa
- Townsville-Hughenden-Richmond-Julia Creek-Mount Isa
- Cairns-Normanton-Karumba-Mornington Island-Burketown-Doomadgee-Mount Isa
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