By 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.]