Source: The Saturday Mercury, 12 August, 2000, p.18
WAYNE CRAWFORD LIKE banks, Australia's big two airlines get little sympathy when they cry poor, or lament that they're gravely misunderstood and misjudged. For, like the banks, they have a record of raking in big profits (Qantas' net profit forecasts for the year to June range between $437 million and $479 million) and treating customers - or at least the "little" ones - offhandedly and in rather cavalier fashion. Take, for instance, the $66 air fares between Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra and regional centres like Tamworth, Armidale and Port Macquarie. Of course, it only became possible when the new kid on the tarmac, Impulse, started the discount war by dropping its fares. Suddenly, Ansett and Qantas discovered they, also, could find a whole lot of seats to sell at $66 instead of the usual $579.40 charged for a standard economy fare between Melbourne and Sydney. But there are no $66 seats on the Hobart-Melbourne route. And why? Simply because there's no competition yet on the Tasmanian routes. Impulse say they're unlikely to come to Tasmania until 2002 and the other cut-price kid, Richard Branson's Virgin Blue, are also only at the "deliberations" stage. Australian air fares have long been a scandal. Recently my wife and I decided it was time to start seeing parts of Australia we'd not visited, so we went to central Australia. The cost for a two-week excursion (largely thanks to the monstrous air fares) came out at three times what it would have cost us for a two-week package holiday in France. The air fares from Hobart to Melbourne and other capitals are a disgrace - the regular economy to Melbourne is $578, to Sydney $836 and Brisbane $1122. That's an outrage -- for $1122 you could just about fly to London and back with accommodation thrown in. And it's no use the airlines wailing that we don't understand and that most travellers actually fly at discounted rates. As the state Liberals' small business spokesman Bob Cheek points out, most business-people who need to go interstate for meetings don't have the luxury of being able to book a week or a fortnight ahead, or being able to stay away a Saturday night to meet the concession fare conditions. So they're held to ransom. The same goes for people who need to go interstate for family reasons at short notice. Virgin Blue gave the game away when a spokeswoman divulged this week that "it costs between $20 and $30 to cover the cost of a seat between Sydney and Brisbane". She didn't estimate what the real cost of a seat between Hobart and Melbourne would be, but I bet it would be a whole lot less than $578. Cheek says the airlines have been whingeing that the Tasmanian routes are marginal cost-wise because of the small population and that if they reduce the fares they might also have to reduce the service. But he says he doesn't really believe it and that the duopoly has had it too easy for too long The service is already pretty lousy - everyone complains about not being able to get flights into or out of Tasmania when they want them, and having to wait hours for connections. It took us nearly 12 hours to get home from Uluru - with a flying time of less than half that. Stories are legion of prospective visitors cancelling their trip to Tasmania because they wouldn't be able to get a flight home. Cheek tells of some Asian businessmen enroute to Tasmania who arrived in Sydney on their inbound overseas flight at 5am and couldn't get to Hobart until late in the afternoon. They had the same problem on the way home which meant they effectively wasted two days on the trip. Goodness knows how long it will be before we get competition on the Tasmania routes. A couple of times recently there have been local investors looking at starting a Tasmanian air service, but seemingly without much success because of the high start-up cost. And presumably the State Government and Tourism Tasmania have been doing all they can to entice the new airlines to Tasmania, but it remains only a proposal. Short of a State Government start-up subsidy as suggested by Cheek, I'm not sure what the answer is. But at least I feel better for having got it off my chest.
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