International flights to Alice would lower fares



p1906alexnelsonBy ALEX NELSON


The solution to the problem of excessive domestic air fares and unreliable services has been apparent for a very long time, as evidenced from “The tourism plan for Central Australia,” of June 1969, (the HKF Report) commissioned by the Australian Tourist Commission in 1968.


The HKF Report’s recommendation to upgrade the Alice Springs Airport as an international flight destination was its first priority. It’s important to note that many of that the report’s other recommendations have been implemented more or less as envisaged but the glaring exception remains that of the Alice Springs Airport’s upgrading as an international airport.


Ironically, even as research was undertaken for the HKF Report, the Alice Springs Airport had already commenced hosting large United States Air Force military transport aircraft in support of the establishment of the new Pine Gap base. This remains the case to this day.


During the mid to late 1970s local newspaper reports revealed the extent of the problem of high domestic air fares for regional and remote areas, which has not changed since that time.


In the early 1980s the Fraser Government launched the Holcroft Inquiry into domestic air services which confirmed what everyone knew but was ignored by the Commonwealth.


The NT’s first Chief Minister, Paul Everingham, was frequently critical of the major airlines’ expensive domestic air fares; yet here we are, in this year marking the 40th anniversary of self-government, still contending with exactly the same problem.


The environment for civil aviation has changed significantly since that time, notably with the deregulation of airline competition in the 1980s, upgrading of terminal facilities, and privatisation of airports in the 1990s. Yet these problems have deteriorated substantially in this period; and certainly there is no improvement.


Two documents – Alice Springs International Airport by the NT Government in late 1988, and a consultancy report into The Centre’s tourism industry released in November 1989 – illustrate this point.


Both were published when deregulation was coming into force and upgrades were imminent for the Darwin International Airport and Alice Springs Airport terminals, yet it was at this juncture that tourism reached its peak in the Northern Territory.


These changes coincided with the disastrous pilots’ strike of late 1989 followed soon after with the onset of national economic decline and recession of the early 1990s.


It’s telling to compare the 1969 HKF Report, with many recommendations implemented, to that of the 1989 Horwath and Horwath tourism study commissioned by the NT Government, of which virtually none has come to pass with the exception of the sealing of the inner loop road west of Alice Springs only late last year.


The failure to realise the tourism industry’s potential since that time represents an immense opportunity cost for the Central Australian region and the nation.


The absurdity of the current situation pertaining to the operation of the Alice Springs Airport is clearly evident. It has a long demonstrated capacity to handle large aircraft and latent capacity to service international flights spanning decades yet there is no real attempt to capitalize on its potential.


Comparatively little expense is required to upgrade the Alice Springs Airport as a fully functional international flight destination.


The tourism industry is an integral part of any solution towards ending the high cost of air fares and unreliability of air passenger services afflicting regional and remote areas – the interests of visitors and locals are intertwined. In my opinion the Alice Springs Airport as an international facility is a lynchpin to the resolution of these problems.


The provision of international flight connections at Alice Springs linking with other major regional centres across northern Australia would attract more domestic carriers to meet the demands of increased passenger numbers thereby providing competition to drive air fare costs lower and improve flight service reliability.


The flow-on effects would be considerable and do much to reduce the burdens of cost and inconvenience afflicting all these places.


The sorry history of the Commonwealth’s long term abrogation of its responsibilities towards regional Australia culminating in the privatisation of airport terminals in the 1990s has permitted the absolving of direct Federal involvement in these issues.


For their part, especially in Central Australia, the private owners of air terminals appear markedly risk averse; certainly as far as Alice Springs is concerned it appears to be very much a case of “missing in action.”


The public has been ill-served by the micro-economic reforms of the past few decades in relation to civil aviation. The Centre’s tourism industry has stagnated for many years and this is reflected in the overall state of the local economy.


For some time now there has been a steady decline of tourism infrastructure in Alice Springs, especially with conversion of accommodation into private real estate which in effect is a cannibalising of resources.


This problem has been ongoing for almost half a century, spanning literally generations, and it is very much one of the Commonwealth’s own making.


It’s ironic there is simultaneously another inquiry into the North Australia Infrastructure Fund.


To my mind the NAIF is an ideal means whereby the Commonwealth can directly intervene by providing financial assistance to regional airports, in particular for the Alice Springs Airport to realise its potential as an international service centre and national flight hub.


For a comparatively small outlay the return on the public dollar appears to be considerably faster and with wider positive consequential effects for the economy than for any other projects I’ve heard mentioned seeking assistance from this fund.


[This is a shortened version of my submission (Number 147) to the Senate Inquiry into the operation, regulation and funding of air route service delivery to rural, regional and remote communities.]




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11 Comments (starting with the most recent)

NB: If you want to reply to a previous comment, start your comment with this notation: @n where n is the number of the comment you want to reply to.
  1. Peter Driscoll
    Posted March 13, 2018 at 2:54 pm

    Wonderful idea and so so overdue. Come on the associated stakeholders, this can transform the town in so many ways as well as Darwin if cabotage laws were relaxed for Darwin.
    What an NT nation building event that would be for so many airlines from Asia and beyond!

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  2. Kathy
    Posted March 13, 2018 at 9:50 am

    Alice Springs should have been an international airport years ago.
    It would cut down on noise and curfews in the cities, be a national airport to anywhere in Australia, and central to all states in Australia except of course Tasmania.

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  3. Posted March 6, 2018 at 11:23 pm

    @ Simon Pettit (Posted March 6, 2018 at 5:51 pm): You’re correct, Simon, the resort development at Yulara has been a mixed blessing for Alice Springs and the rest of The Centre.
    I’m unaware of other international flights landing at Yulara but that’s not to say there haven’t been any, I just don’t know.
    There were quite a number of Japanese charter flights to Alice Springs from 2003 to 2007; some of these were direct flights from Tokyo and Osaka, others came via Cairns. They all came in on Boeing 747 Jumbo jets.
    The market dried up in 2008.
    There was also at least one charter flight from Switzerland to Alice Springs in 2005.
    A considerable effort was made in lobbying the Howard Government (and particularly the Nationals leader John Anderson, who was Minister for Transport) during this time to upgrade Alice Springs Airport to international status but this was knocked back.
    Less than $1m was sought from the Commonwealth and NT governments to facilitate this upgrading.
    Meanwhile the Commonwealth is investing $5.3b in the new Western Sydney Airport (Badgerys Creek) scheduled for completion in 2026.
    Go figure.

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  4. Simon Pettit
    Posted March 6, 2018 at 5:51 pm

    Alex: Your advice with respect the NT Government warning to Alice Springs based tourism operators is acknowledged.
    However, no matter how much Alice Springs based tourist operators, or Alice Springs itself, upped the game, providing the capability for tourists to detour Alice, was a game changer for our town.
    Hopefully, an international airport in Alice … and not Yulara … will change that.
    Do they still have direct international flights into Yulara? Or was the German charter example a one off?

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  5. Jihn Edgoose
    Posted March 6, 2018 at 4:36 pm

    Excellent observation and commentary. Making the airport international would boost local tourism and the economy. Should have been done years ago. Alice Springs Town Council, please start lobbying for this.

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  6. Posted March 6, 2018 at 2:08 pm

    @ Simon Pettit (Posted March 6, 2018 at 10:04 am: The Connellan Airport at Yulara was officially opened by Chief Minister Marshall Perron on Tuesday, February 16, 1993. There was a lot of criticism directed at the NT Government by local tourism operators and other businesses based in Alice Springs.
    However, when construction of Yulara was commenced more than a decade earlier, the NT Government warned Alice Springs-based tourism businesses they needed to improve their services or they would be bypassed by the new government-built tourist village near Uluru.
    Less than a week after the official opening of the new airport at Yulara (the airstrip had already been operational for several years), a Condor international charter flight from Germany landed there first before coming over to Alice Springs.

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  7. Simon Pettit
    Posted March 6, 2018 at 10:04 am

    The opening of the airport at Ayers Rock in the early/mid 1990s (not sure exactly when) to direct flights out of and into the eastern states didn’t help the Alice Springs tourisn industry either!
    This has been the main reason for Alice’s decline over the past 20 years, as Alice is now bypassed by thousands and thousands of tourists each year who only see The Rock.
    I like the idea of an international Alice Springs airport, particularly once our new Indigenous arts and culture museum is up and running – at the Desert Park.

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  8. Posted March 5, 2018 at 7:00 pm

    It is a wonder that Chinese state-backed business interests have not got in on the act.
    After all, they actually now own a couple of small regional airports in WA, I understand.

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  9. Posted March 5, 2018 at 4:24 pm

    @ Ian Sharp (Posted March 5, 2018 at 3:17 pm): Thanks for your comment, Ian, but I’ve not made any suggestion that international carriers be allowed to fly on domestic air routes. There is no difficulty in this case.
    Qantas, of course, is both an international and domestic carrier so this shouldn’t be a problem at any rate.
    However, there are other submissions to the Senate Inquiry that have urged relaxation of regulations for cabotage within Australia.

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  10. Ian Sharp
    Posted March 5, 2018 at 3:17 pm

    I think there are tight restrictions imposed by international treaties that make this difficult. Also a problem in the US as detailed in a 2014 article which outlines some of the hurdles.

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  11. Psuedo Guru
    Posted March 5, 2018 at 12:39 pm

    Well done Alex. Is anyone listening? Qantas provides excellent service – Competition reduces airfares.
    International Alice Springs would create an instant boom economy.

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