Airport argument drives deep wedge between parties

IT is difficult to believe how low the feelings have reached in the “cool” relationship that exists between Grant District Council and Rex Airlines over issues surrounding the Mount Gambier Airport.

The two have been at loggerheads for eight years over increased passenger tax and Grant’s plan to seek funding to upgrade the airport so it can attract bigger aircraft.

But it is nothing compared to the toxic relationship between Rex and Member for Mount Gambier Troy Bell that has developed since his refusal to travel with the regional airline.

Together they highlight the sorry health of local relationships with the airline.

Added to this is the cutting reply from the airline to Mr Bell’s “boycott”, in that the airline would ensure to accommodate his wishes if ever they discovered his name on the passenger list.

Basically they inferred they would remove it.

Hardly the reply one expects from a professional company, but that it is how low the debate has developed.

Yet, there was still more to come when last week Rex put its submission to a Senate Inquiry, severely criticising Grant’s passenger tax when it went up by 46pc in 2010 and then had further increases by 10pc and 7pc, to the point it is now $10.45/passenger.

Rex’s submission claimed council’s tax resulted in a steep decline of passenger numbers which went from 117,000 to 76,000 today.

The passenger tax was described by Grant council as “modest” and to the average punter it doesn’t seem a huge financial impost.

But it is Rex’s submission to the inquiry regarding its argument against extensions at the airport which is scathing, both against the project and Grant Council.

Rex ridiculed Grant’s policy of “build it and they will come” and added more fuel to the fire by suggesting council was guilty of giving ratepayers the impression there would be a queue of airlines wanting to operate out of Mount Gambier.

In what was a very diplomatic response, Grant Mayor Richard Sage simply said that was “their view” and while obviously Rex is entitled to it, he did defend council’s expansion plan.

Rex’s submission also claimed the Mount Gambier to Adelaide route and Mount Gambier to Melbourne route, with the current level of passenger traffic, could not sustain competition.

This statement has been refuted by both Grant and Mr Bell but one clear point Mr Sage made was significant.

He said the size aircraft currently being used by Rex were no longer being manufactured and Grant must, as a duty to its ratepayers and flying public, upgrade the airport so it was ready for the new, larger aircraft of the future.

It is an important point: the city must plan for the future and cannot be held back by views of one airline.

To do nothing will mean going backwards and while tourism and other benefits that might come from larger aircraft and competition may well have arguments from both sides, the simple fact is flight travel has dropped alarmingly since the departure of O’Connor Airlines and Grant is trying to do something about it.

Their view is supported in the figures that passenger numbers have nearly halved since 2007/2008 and while Rex blames this on passenger tax rises, council and the community cannot sit on their hands and watch the situation deteriorate any further.

Troy Bell’s argument is that competition will drive down prices and make it more affordable for the person in the street.

One constant question that comes from the public is why Rex’s prices have risen four-fold since the competition days in the early 2000s with O’Connor Airlines?

While from the outside it seems Rex is protecting its business interests by lobbying against an airport upgrade, their view is not shared by numerous other submissions which supported Grant council.

None-the-less as the saga continues there seems little likelihood of a dramatic improvement in the relationship between the airline and Grant – it is not one would expect from a major tenant towards its landlord.

In the meantime, Grant and Mr Bell continue the battle.