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Thirteen years of flying with Rex

Clarence Valley Regional Airport has long been a contentious issue for Clarence Valley Council (CVC), as it is among certain sections of the valley’s wider community.

Critics of the airport, many of them from the Lower Clarence, see it as unnecessary expenditure of ratepayers’ money, or say it’s cheaper and more convenient to fly out of Ballina or Coffs Harbour.

On the other hand, CVC has always had to make allowances for the testy nature of its relationship with Rex airlines, which started servicing the airport in 2007.

In 2011 Rex threatened to leave if the airport wasn’t upgraded; in 2014 the airline cited rising fuel costs, the introduction of the carbon tax, declining passenger numbersand the removal of the en-route rebate scheme, as reasons to consider cancelling the service, saying that that sustaining three flights a week “equated to some 30,000 annual seats, which is not sustainable with 15,000 annual passengers”.

In 2017 councillors unanimously supported a stay on the landing fees, following a letter from Rex that said it “cannot accept any increases to the [landing] charges at the airport”.

Subsequently it was agreed that CVC would charge landing fees of $7/head for up to 15,000 passengers per year and $5/head for all passengers in excess of 15,000 for the 2017/18 and 2018/19 financial years”.

This arrangement is still current.

And then there’s the recently resolved argy bargy, which Page MP Kevin Hogan took credit for resolving, when Rex cancelled its service, alleging that it had been insulted by a comment made by Cr Deborah Novak.

“I have left no stone unturned in ensuring Rex can resume flights for the sake of our local community,” Mr Hogan said when announcing that Rex would resume flights from August 17.

Mr Hogan did not respond to the Independent’s enquiry, which sought information regarding whether or not there was a plan in place to increase service levels to a point where it would be possible to fly to and from Sydney on the same day, dependent on the federal government’s subsidisation of the airline and the relaxing of Covid-19 restrictions.

The Independent spoke with CVC’s general manager, Ashley Lindsay.

Independent: Is the reduced service, which does not allow for same day return travel to or from Sydney, a result of the federal government’s subsidisation of Rex?

Ashley Lindsay: “About flights into regional NSW and Australia, I think, as a result of the federal government subsidising them, it must have been a negotiated position with the federal government, and in that document there are three flights into Grafton and Lismore [Monday, Wednesday and Friday].

“So what they’ve reintroduced into, as from Monday August 17, is that same level of service that they’ve negotiated with the federal government.

“If you have a look, there is only one or two centres in regional NSW that are getting three flights a week, all of the rest are getting two.

I: Has there been any discussion regarding increasing the number of flights once Covid restrictions are phased out?

AL: “I think it’s difficult to make any comment on future airline services. Who knows what the future holds for airline travel and, generally, I would think international travel will be restricted for some time, [too].

I: Is there any quantification of how many people use the airport for work purposes, state government employees for example?

AL: (note: Mr Lindsay did not know, but said): “If Grafton airport wasn’t there… for the convenience all of the state government offices or departments, potentially [they], might move from Grafton to Coffs [Harbour]; would that be a good thing for the Clarence Valley?”

Mr Lindsay said he was surprised at “the number of people who’ve contacted me”.

He said: “Just randomly when I’m walking down the street in Grafton [I’m asked], ‘When are you going to get REX back?’

“Or, ‘I hope you get REX back.’

“I didn’t appreciate the number of people who use and value the service until it was gone.

“It just inconveniences people; you’ve got to drive 60, 65 minutes, depending on the traffic, maybe 70 minutes to Grafton from Coffs Harbour; and you’ve got to pay for your parking.”

The valley’s airport: asset or liability?