Qantas, Virgin flights to return next week
THE Far North's aviation industry has been handed a lifeline after the federal government announced it would subsidise flights operated by Qantas and Virgin Australia Groups on critical metropolitan and regional routes including Cairns.
The initial $165 million injection would include all state and territory capital cities and is in addition to the more than $1 billion in Commonwealth support for aviation in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack said the move would secure "affordable access for passengers who need to travel, including essential workers such as frontline medical personnel and defence personnel, as well as supporting the movement of essential freight such as critical medicine and personal protective equipment".
"We know that a strong domestic aviation network is critical to Australia's success," he said.
"This investment will also help Australians returning from overseas, who find themselves in a different city after 14 days of mandatory quarantine, complete their journey home safely."
The announcement complements actions already taken to underwrite international flights to help Australians get home, as well as through the $198 million Regional Airlines Network Support program.
The support would last for an initial eight weeks with a review mechanism in place to determine if further action was required.
A Virgin Australia spokesman said the new schedule would include three return flights per week between Brisbane and Cairns and enable 200 staff around the country to be re-employed.
Flights will be available today.
"As a major Australian airline, we are proud to support the Federal Government in returning passengers home and enabling essential travellers to continue flying during this time," the spokesman said.
"The minimal domestic schedule will enable Virgin Australia to reinstate some of its stood down flight, cabin and ground crew, along with other operational team members."
Qantas will also resume two flights per week from Cairns to Horn Island, Weipa and Brisbane as well as daily flights to Townsville.
A spokesman for the company said national passenger flights would increase from 105 per week currently to 164 per week.
"While travel restrictions mean most passenger flights are not commercially viable at the moment, there remains a need for some essential travel - particularly given the distances between most Australian cities," he said.
"These flights will also provide critical freight capacity, which has fallen significantly as commercial air networks have shrunk. Much of the bellyspace on these flights will be used for mail and other urgent shipments, including medical equipment.
"While the risk of contracting coronavirus on board an aircraft is regarded as low, social distancing has been put in place across all flights.
"The additional flights will roll out from today and be fully operational by Monday."
Cairns Airport CEO Norris Carter welcomed the move and said it would give the region "some predictability".
"People who need to travel can plan to get where they need to, and there will be more freight for a lot of the online shopping happening at the moment," Mr Carter said.
The airport boss also said he was "watching very closely" any government chatter about reopening borders, but admitted he had no idea when normal aviation services could resume in and out of Cairns.
"We are thinking about the recovery already. That's going to be really important and we will need to work with other industries to get back on track. This is a really hard time for everyone," he said.
"I've said this before. Cairns people are unbelievably resilient and they will find a way through this.
"The restrictions locally will likely be lifted first, so we will see locals be allowed to get out and do things like go out to restaurants. Then it'll be the drive market - you'll be able to drive up to Port Douglas, or drive up from Townsville.
"Then I expect a broader Queensland market. Then there will be interstate travel and then international travel returning."
The plethora of local, state and federal government assistance has been vital in keeping the airport functioning and Mr Carter said all levels of government had helped significantly.
"The way the coronavirus has affected the airport is that our revenue principally relates to passengers. The number of passengers has gone down to virtually none in international and less than 10 per cent in domestic.
"Our costs don't go down the same way, most are fixed. We need the same number of people to mow lawns and gardens, the same number of safety officers scaring away birds and making sure safety is enforced on the runway.
"Government assistant is certainly necessary and welcomed. All three levels of government have stepped up pretty quickly which has been helpful to us and all businesses at the airport.
"The big one has been the JobKeeper payment and pretty much all our employees are eligible for that.
"People are one of our biggest costs."
Mr Carter ruled out any executive pay cuts for now and said the business's preference was to "pay everybody their full entitlements to the extent we can do that".
Cairns Airport is also eligible for specific aviation industry assistance to keep security screening personnel employed, and payroll and land tax relief.
Mr Carter said Cairns Regional Council had offered rates and business fee deferral options as well.
"There are some specific examples of where it helps - with not many people in the domestic passenger terminal, it would have been tricky for food and beverage outlets to stay open," he said.
"They not only feed passengers, they also feed airport workers who wouldn't be able to get a coffee or snack or lunch anywhere else.
"This way, wages get covered, and they only have to cover the costs of food and drink.
"We haven't gone through every single program available because a huge number have been released. We have priorities, and the first one is keeping employees and other airport workers and passengers safe.
"We have lots of hand sanitiser around the terminal, signs warning about social distancing, extra hand basins after security to help people wash their hands.
"Maintaining operations is our second priority.
"The people flying around and the freight flying is really important. The third is around looking after the broader airport community locally, all our customers and suppliers, to make sure they're around when this ends.
"The fourth is maintaining the financial health of our business."
Originally published as Virgin flights return to Cairns