Geoff Helisma, Clarence Valley Independent
Clarence Valley Council (CVC) is hoping that Page MP Kevin Hogan can help fill the hole left by Rex regional airline’s announcement that it will cease operating its Sydney to Grafton and Lismore routes as of Friday March 26.
At last week’s March 23 CVC meeting, councillors unanimously endorsed a mayoral minute to write to the Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack and Mr Hogan, who is the assistant minister to Mr McCormack.
Councillors are “seeking their support and requesting the federal government [to] extend [its] financial support for regional airline services via the RANS program for another 12 months, to 31 March 2022”.
Additionally, councillors tasked the general manager, Ashley Lindsay, to “commence negotiations urgently with Lismore City Council, to develop a proposal to find a replacement airline service for the Sydney/Grafton/Lismore and return route”.
Rex blames Qantas for its decision to stop servicing five regional routes – Sydney to: Bathurst, Cooma, Lismore, Grafton and Kangaroo Island –, which will affect around 100,000 passengers annually 18,000 of who flew to and from Grafton, pre Covid pandemic.
Rex has vowed to continue flying eight of its routes in competition with Qantas, which Rex says, means it will “be unable to continue subsidising marginal routes [such as Grafton] that we have serviced for the past 20 years”.
“It is with a heavy heart that we are announcing the cessation of services to the five routes … once the government support through the RANS program is discontinued at the end of March,” the Rex media release states.
The Regional Airline Network Support (RANS) program, which is due to cease on March 28, was implemented by the Australian Government to “ensure regional communities continue to receive essential air services [and] … cover operating shortfalls for a limited number of services on regional routes flown prior to the COVID-19 crisis”.
Rex began servicing the Clarence Valley Regional Airport in 2007, however, in 2011, the airline threatened to cease its service and, subsequently, the arrangement with CVC was often fraught.
Mr Lindsay said he had “made contact with the acting general manager of Lismore City Council, Michael Donnelly”.
“He is going to talk to his mayor,” Mr Lindsay said.
“He sees the need to work together, so we’ll work together to lobby the government to extend the RANS program.
“There are opportunities for council.
“I think we need to move on from Rex and find an alternative airline service, whether it is Qantas or Fly Pelican, we’ll go through the process.”
At last week’s CVC meeting, Cr Deborah Novak “wondered … [if it] would it be fortuitous to put it out to tender to see if there was any interest”.
Mr Lindsay said it might be something to “consider in the future”, once other avenues have been explored.
Councillor Richie Williamson said he had “supported Rex for a long time” and that he was “disappointed” about “losing a service that most people in our community value”.
“[Rex] has supported the community … but I understand their change of corporate plans … and wish them the best in the future,” he said.
Councillor Andrew Baker said: “I suggest we should turn our minds to Grafton airport without a regular passenger service … and put our minds to a Plan B,” regarding what to do if a new carrier doesn’t fill the void.
Councillor Peter Ellem said, “it is right to explore a possible joint venture with Lismore council because they are in the same boat” – he agreed with Cr Baker in the context of a ‘Plan B’.
The mayor pointed out in his minute: “Having access to flights from Grafton airport into Sydney and return is very important for our local community, particularly the business community.
“Let’s not forget the jobs that will be lost at the airport (likely to be three positions) if the flights into Grafton are no longer provided.”
This article appeared in the Clarence Valley Independent, 3 March 2021.