THE $9.2m Mount Gambier Airport project will deliver a modern new terminal for passengers and pave the way for growth in the charter aircraft sector.
But the proponents of the long awaited project have stopped short of promising the upgrade will deliver a boost to passenger numbers and a drop in ticket prices.
After two failed attempts at snaring federal funds, the Coalition has now cemented the project with $3.5m from the Building Better Regions Fund.
The project was yesterday lauded by regional stakeholders who gathered at the airport for the announcement by Regional Development Minister John McVeigh.
Grant District Mayor Richard Sage yesterday described the project as a milestone infrastructure project and vowed to lobby carrier Regional Express to restore and grow services for the region.
He revealed there were no plans under way to attract a second carrier to the airport given a duopoly would not be commercially viable because passengers were split between Adelaide and Melbourne.
“We do not have any plans to speak with other carriers because we are serviced very well by Rex,” Mr Sage said.
Instead, he said Regional Express should be given the opportunity to work with the community on these issues.
The mayor will join a pending regional delegation to Sydney to hold ground-breaking talks with Regional Express after the airlines relationship with the regional community has been at times strained.
Mr Sage – whose council owns the airport – said the council would now move quickly to fine-tune the plans and the tender process.
He foreshadowed the construction could begin by the end of this year and he hoped a significant part of the work could be undertaken by regional contractors.
“The new terminal will be larger and will expand into the carpark area,” Mr Sage said.
Importantly, he said the new terminal would include a baggage handling carousel so people no longer had to wait in the shed to pick up their bags.
Asked if Regional Express was on board with the project, Mr Sage said there had been no dialogue between the two parties on the project for some time.
This follows the carrier previously opposing the proposed redevelopment of the airport.
“I am hopeful that with the visit Member for Barker Tony Pasin is organising we can look at what they have done at other airports with community fares programs and how it can be sustainable for the airline into the future,” Mr Sage said.
“We have got the passenger numbers here, but we need to grow them to make it more viable for the carrier.”
He said it was also important to revisit the service cuts and put how it was affecting the South East economy “on the table” to Rex.
Defending Rex’s track record at the airport, he said the carrier facilitated more than 35 flights at Mount Gambier every week.
“They have serviced our community very well in the past – regional flights across Australia are the most expensive because it is a numbers game,” Mr Sage said.
Meanwhile, Mr Pasin conceded the infrastructure would not solve problems relating to passenger numbers, services and airfare costs.
“But the project does provide a more flexible asset … and a more convenient experience for passengers,” the Liberal backbencher said.
But he said the upgraded airport would lure additional charter aircraft and private jets given the increased capacity of the airport.
“It is critical we take the opportunity to meet with senior officials of Rex airlines to talk to them regarding a solution that works in the interest of the business, the community and stakeholders,” Mr Pasin
He said Rex had expressed concerns the upgrade would drive increases in the passenger head tax.
“I do not think that is the wish of the airport authority or Grant District Council,” he said.
Flying into Mount Gambier yesterday, Dr McVeigh congratulated all parties for getting the project off the ground.
“This airport upgrade is exactly the sort of regional development project the Federal Government wants to get behind,” Dr McVeigh said.
Mount Gambier Mayor Andrew Lee – whose council has kicked in $500,000 for the airport upgrade – said the project was critically important.
“It also provides proper recognition that Mount Gambier is the second largest city in South Australia,” Mr Lee said.
“We look forward to working with Grant District Council to progress the project for the benefit of the entire region.”