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'Thanks': town gathers over love for Qantas

22/01/2014 Jamie Freed
Brindabella Airlines. © Tamara Dean Brindabella Airlines.

The Flying Kangaroo may have its share of critics these days, but you won't find many in the north-west NSW town of Moree.

The town of 10,000 is so keen to express its appreciation for Qantas that about 300 residents gathered for a rally on Tuesday, handing baskets filled with local produce to pilots and flight attendants as gifts.

Then there is local farmer Stuart Gall, who last week painted the roof of his shed under the Moree airport flight path, with ''Thanks Qantas. Please Stay'' in giant letters.

The goal? To convince QantasLink to apply for a five-year NSW licence for regional air services to Sydney airport, in a tender process set to open on Thursday. The licence is a monopoly that keeps competitors off routes to make them financially viable.

An application by QantasLink won't mean it is a guaranteed winner. The airline learnt that lesson in 2012 when it was beaten in a tender by tiny Canberra-based carrier Brindabella Airlines. QantasLink had served Moree for more than 20 years until it was forced to halt flights last March in a decision that shocked local residents.

By December, QantasLink had returned to Moree on a temporary basis after Brindabella went into receivership. The collapse was prompted by the grounding of several of its planes by the Civil Aviation Safety Authority due to lapsed maintenance.

Transport for NSW has promised there will be more opportunity for community input about preferences surrounding services, the size of aircraft and affordability than in the past, but it won't take into account support for any particular airline.

Moree residents say Brindabella offered an inconsistent service, cancelling flights or often offloading passengers and bags for weight reasons. The towns of Narrabri, Mudgee, Cobar and Cooma were also without air services after Brindabella's collapse.

Michael Campion, a Sydney gynaecologist who was raised in

Moree and still flies in monthly to assist at an Aboriginal women's clinic, said Brindabella's poor service had proven disastrous for the region's economy.

''I'm performing eight surgeries which have been delayed now for [about] five months,'' he said. ''[The patients] weren't in situations where they could easily travel to Sydney for treatment.''

Moree may not be core to QantasLink business, but QantasLink is certainly core to the broader airline group. The regional arm has traditionally been a highly profitable operation for Qantas, which has been under pressure from competition from rival Virgin Australia on several fronts.

Qantas has warned of a pre-tax loss of up to $300 million in the first half and has unveiled plans to cut 1000 jobs and $2 billion of spending. It is seeking the government's help to level the playing field against Virgin and has also launched a strategic review which might result in a partial sale of its frequent flyer program or Jetstar.

In the regional market, Virgin Australia Regional Airlines (VARA) has been entering unregulated monopoly routes, in a move that has placed pressure on QantasLink's pricing.

However, the Moree route represents an opportunity for QantasLink to snare a monopoly route not open to VARA. Virgin last week revealed it had placed any regional expansions on hold until it could get proper compliance systems in place.

But worryingly for the town's residents, QantasLink has not yet decided it will lodge an application with the NSW government. If not, services to Moree will cease in March.

''No decisions have been made about seeking to operate the route beyond this date, but we acknowledge and appreciate the sentiments expressed and thank the people of Moree,'' a Qantas spokeswoman said.

QantasLink was supported as the favourite option by 95 per cent of the 1100 residents that completed an online survey, with Regional Express (Rex) a distant second place with 3 per cent support.

Yet Rex appears less hesitant about making an application. It is using the collapse of Brindabella as an expansion opportunity and hired 14 captains from the group.

Rex has called for expressions of interest from regional cities in NSW interested in regular air services. It wants new routes to cities within 600 kilometres of Sydney interested in three return flights on weekdays. Only cities that can sustain more than 30,000 annual passengers will be considered.

Rex chief operating officer Garry Filmer said his airline was interested in Moree, but was waiting for support from the local council.

''They really have to want us for us to go there,'' he said. ''The ball is back in their court.''

For Qantas, there isn't a huge financial incentive to relaunch flights to Moree on a permanent basis. It is thought the route had been marginally profitable.

But at a time when the airline is seeking government support, backing a town so eager for its services could help build goodwill with politicians.

Cov © 'Thanks': town gathers over love for Qantas Cov Moree has painful memories of Brindabella. © Tamara Dean Moree has painful memories of Brindabella.
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