Mount Isa residents hold up cards with amounts they paid to fly to Brisbane, at the Senate Inquiry hearing last year.

Mount Isa residents hold up cards with amounts they paid to fly to Brisbane, at the Senate Inquiry hearing last year.

Regional Airfares No Longer Under the Radar

Regional transport costs continue to wreak havoc


The tyranny of distance is an everyday problem in remote areas like North West Queensland.


North West Queensland covers an area the size of Spain, has one major town, Mount Isa, (population 20,000) and lots of far-flung satellite communities often linked by sub-standard roads.

The nearest place with big city services is Townsville, 1000km away, and the state capital, Brisbane, is almost twice that distance.

Ten or 20 hours in the car to get to somewhere is not unusual, though steep fuel prices in the bush can make that an expensive journey.

Still, the cost of driving pales in comparison to that of flying, a topic of white-hot anger in North West Queensland for many years.

In the golden olden days, the theory went, Mount Isa was full of wealthy miners who could afford the costly flight, or their companies could.

But that fable only lasted to the mining downturn and in any case, what about the teachers, the cops, the nurses, and God forbid, even the journalists, who did not have salaries linked to commodity prices?

The airlines denied there was a problem and said it was just market forces and if people shopped around and booked early they could fly (relatively) cheaply.

This was true to a point, though a typical return between Isa and Brisbane is still north of $700.

The problem is worsened for those who need to leave in a hurry, or unexpectedly, or during school holidays. Fares in excess of $1000 are not unusual and families could be out of pocket for thousands of dollars.

Then there is "dynamic pricing," the realm of fiendishly unknowable airline algorithms.

Cloncurry cheaper fares advocate Hamish Griffin noted how Virgin advertised a $974 one-way flight from Cloncurry to Townsville as a "special" when the road linking them was closed due to flooding.

Coincidence or not, the federal government could no longer look away and in 2017 opened a Senate inquiry into "the operation, regulation and funding of air route service delivery to rural, regional and remote communities".

Katrina Gall told the Inquiry how she and her husband had to move away after spending $20,000 to visit her sick father. When he died and they moved back to Mount Isa, they faced the same problem when her husband's parent also fell ill.

"Everyone here in Mount Isa has family from away and there are times when you need to get away quickly in a tragedy," she said.

Kim Coghlan spoke about the enormous bills she faces supporting her children to play sport away from home.

"They have the same dreams as kids on the coast," she said.

Members of the Senate inquiry keep their heads down in Cloncurry. L-R Sen Rex Patrick (CA), Sen Barry O'Sullivan (LNP), secretary Tim Watling, Sen Richard Colbeck (LNP) and Sen Anthony Chisholm (ALP).

Members of the Senate inquiry keep their heads down in Cloncurry. L-R Sen Rex Patrick (CA), Sen Barry O'Sullivan (LNP), secretary Tim Watling, Sen Richard Colbeck (LNP) and Sen Anthony Chisholm (ALP).

When the airlines finally fronted the Inquiry earlier this year, they had a different story.

Virgin Australia told a Brisbane hearing the economies of scale necessary to make profits in regions was harder than in the capitals due to "the need to spread the costs of the flights - many fixed - over a smaller number of passengers".

Qantas told a similar story in Darwin, and like Virgin also blamed high airport costs, a claim contradicted by Queensland Airports Ltd, which owns Gold Coast, Townsville, Mount Isa and Longreach airports. QAL said they typically charged 5-10 per cent of the total fare, not the 30 per cent claimed by the airlines.

When the inquiry finally handed down its findings in early June, they backed the airports' contention they were not responsible for the problem, but had a harder time in identifying what was the cause.

Indeed, they recommended ANOTHER inquiry, this time by the Productivity Commission into domestic airfares on routes to and between regional centres in Australia.

"The inquiry should, via a detailed economic analysis, investigate the feasibility of increasing operational subsidies and introducing other price control alternatives to address the high cost of regional airfares" - Senate Inquiry Report

There were other recommendations such as looking at the increasing costs of security screening, reviewing the funding of aerodrome infrastructure and maintenance and asking COAG to develop a nationally consistent framework for regulated routes across Australia.

But nothing there suggested cheaper flights were coming to regional Australia any time soon.

State member Robbie Katter called the inquiry "a waste of time". He preferred to grill the state government on subsidised routes (which does not include Mount Isa) and ask if they had pricing software to monitor airlines' erratic pricing (answer: no they don't).

The negotiation for the current contracts on the regulated routes are a casualty of the ongoing federal inaction. The Palaszczuk government has extended the contracts for 12 months.

Meanwhile Qantas's boss Alan Joyce announces a $24 million salary, while Virgin has cut services including to Cloncurry.

So what of the inquiry outcomes, four months on? Well, very little. They were tabled in parliament but no actions taken, and have yet to enter the Productivity Commission's remit. When the North West Star asked for comment the response from the Deputy PM's office that the government was "currently finalising its response which will be tabled in the coming days".

Maybe. And maybe the cheque is in the mail too. I hope so, because failing mention in Mr Joyce's will, that's the only way I can afford to fly out of Mount Isa.

Derek Barry is the editor of The North West Star

This article was originally published in the Voice of Australia newsletter. To find out more and sign up for the daily newsletter go here.