Regional airfares inquiry set to be tabled today

Tom ZaunmayrPilbara News
VideoState Political Reporter Dylan Caporn explains why personal stories are so critical to the Parliamentary inquiry into expensive regional airfares.

It has been a long and expensive road for regional WA residents and businesses waiting to see action on reducing airfares to and from their towns.

A report from the Economics and Industry Standing Committee into the price of regional WA airfares is due to be tabled in parliament today.

Mainstream coverage of the cost of Pilbara airfares ramped up in September 2015, when former Karratha Senior High School student Liam Payne took a petition supported by about 8,000 residents to State Parliament.

Around the same time a petition from Newman resident Cindy Williams gained 750 signatures in one day.

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The petitions prompted Durack MHR Melissa Price to write to Qantas regarding what appeared to be “price gouging”.

“In a town like Newman, which has as many as nine flights a day, charging a high fare where there is no competition looks like price gouging,” she told the Pilbara News.

“Even if a Newman passenger is organised and looks to book ahead of time, there is no chance in the high cost of a flight Friday afternoon.”

Former Hedland Airport chairwoman Cheryl Edwards weighed into the debate in mid-2016, labelling the cost of Pilbara airfares “appalling”.

In September 2016, Pilbara Regional Council chief executive Tony Friday called for a State Government inquiry to protect Pilbara consumers from artificially high airfares.

Mr Friday told the News fly-in, fly-out workforces were distorting the market by making half-empty regional flights commercially viable, despite being inaccessible to residents and tourists.

VideoIt comes just days ahead of an inquiry into regional airfares.

The issue became a hot topic during the State Election campaign. Former Nationals MLC Dave Grills backed the call for an inquiry in parliament, adding costs were high to Kalgoorlie as well.

North West Central MLA Vince Catania made public his idea to introduce a regulated monopoly, claiming competition had not had the desired effect to reduce prices.

WA Labor formally announced its intention to hold an inquiry at the start of 2017. The Liberal Party indicated it wanted to pursue incentive measures, while the WA Nationals continued a push for regulation and price caps.

Mr Friday upped his rhetoric in June 2017, calling on the State Government to stop “toying” with the aviation industry.

Mr Friday said government meddling should be front and centre of the debate, and any resolutions should encourage the free market to operate openly.

“These problems are of Government making — fringe benefits tax tinkering, routes tinkering — get the hell out of the way and let a genuinely open market determine pricing,” he said.

Virgin Australia dropped a bombshell on the debate in August, claiming some of its routes were unsustainable and that prices were likely to rise.

After announcing a 12-month discounted flight trial to several Pilbara towns, Qantas begun putting public pressure on local governments to reduce “exorbitant” airport charges.

The call was backed by resources industry bodies in WA, though the inquiry committee saw these fees and charges as a small portion of the total airfare.

Throughout the coverage of airfares there have been plenty of personal grievances aired.

Dampier resident Shari Kyle was left miffed after being charged $144 in freight to fly a passport from Perth to Karratha in June this year.

Shire of East Pilbara chief executive Allen Cooper was disgruntled about $939 flights from Newman in October 2015.

Father of six Lee Tattam said clubs were being forced to hit the highway to attend regional meets instead of flying, which led to significant time constraints and safety risks.

One Roebourne resident was nearly brought to tears as she recounted her heartbreak in only being able to travel to see a friend who had three months to live once because of the cost of airfares.

Perhaps the most shocking example of exorbitant costs came in December 2016, when a Paraburdoo family was forced to forgo a Christmas trip home to the grandparents in Tasmania because it would have cost them more than $12,000 to fly.

And Mr Payne’s trip to Perth to bring his petition to State Parliament? That return trip cost him $900.

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