ABC DARWIN DRIVE: 8 SEPTEMBER 2021, Inquiry in Aviation Industry

08 September 2021



SUBJECT/S: Senate Standing Committees on Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport inquiry into the General Aviation Industry hears evidence from the Northern Territory.

ELIZA GOETZ, PRESENTER: Eliza Goetz is my name, thanks for your company this afternoon. Well, I want to take you back in time to Pre COVID days. Remember when you used to be able to hop on a plane and after a few hours you could be in Sydney or Melbourne and you might even be able to do it for an affordable price? Gee, those were the days weren't they? But covid has really decimated our ability to get on a plane at all in a lot of circumstances. Even if you travel interstate, there's fewer flights. The sector has really completely changed in the last 18 months. So what does that mean for you? What does it mean for tourists, farmers, remote doctors and all of those industries that really rely on flights to operate at all? Has COVID changed the way we interact with air travel for good? Today, the Senate Committee on Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport has been asking the Northern Territory those questions as they hold their hearing here. So what were the answers? Malarndirri McCarthy is a Senator for the NT and she sits on the committee. Senator, when the pandemic first hit, there were huge disruptions to freight supply chains, the ability to move across the country, and that's eased off a bit by now. But what are some of the lasting impacts that you've been hearing about today?

SENATOR MALARNDIRRI MCCARTHY: Well, certainly these past couple of days we've listened to many people give evidence, and particularly here in the Northern Territory. And firstly, the concern around aviation and the ability to fly, as we all know, is is really hindered. And so tourism bodies, certainly training bodies, engineers, skilled people have been giving evidence as to what that means and their concerns around whether Australia will have the capability to pick up where we left off if and when the borders do open to allow such important flights to take place interstate and overseas.

GOETZ: And you heard from the tourism sector as well. Obviously, they've been hit hard, but what does the future look like for them with air travel in its current state

MCCARTHY: Incredibly difficult, without a doubt. Certainly, the Northern Territory relies on substantial international visitors, in particular Uluru and Kakadu. We've certainly been hit very hard in recent months with the lockdowns of New South Wales and Victoria and parts of Queensland. We've had tourism NT give evidence. We've certainly had Top End Tourism give evidence just in terms of how those visitors to the Northern Territory are now no longer able to come because of those lockdowns. So we are we are experiencing great difficulty in the Northern Territory. And that was expressed quite clearly to the Senate committee.

GOETZ: Yeah, you mentioned that, that one of the statements today was quite emotional.

MCCARTHY: It was. Tourism top End was our final witness to today's hearing and obviously the toll that it takes on businesses more broadly across Australia, but certainly here in the Northern Territory and in the Top End, there's over 500 members of Tourism Top End, and they've had some pretty sad news of late. And Glen, who gave evidence this afternoon, expressed the heavy toll that covid-19 is taking on families, on businesses, just from an emotional perspective, as much as anything. And that really affected the Senators listening to the evidence. But it also hit home just how personal covid-19 is impacting on just about each and every person.

GOETZ: Hmm. And also, all air services have lost money due to the pandemic. Cost savings have to have to be found somewhere. And it's looking more likely that, you know, those less profitable routes to regional and remote areas will be affected here. Have you got a sense of what the future holds for air services to smaller territory towns?

MCCARTHY: Well, we did hear evidence that the smaller regional airlines have picked up more of the work as a result of the larger aircraft unable to fly. So, for example, we've certainly lost the service between Alice Springs and Uluru. And a lot of that is based around the fact that the borders are cut off internationally and when most of our visitors to the Rock come from international visitors. So you do have smaller companies like ChartAir, for example. We were told in evidence today that it's picked up the opportunity to try and offer charters to to Uluru, which is perhaps something it wouldn't have done prior to COVID. So smaller aircraft, smaller companies are able to take advantage of it. Obviously, it's probably still not enough for them, but it's probably good news for them in this instance. But the other thing, if I can just add for your listeners in Central Australia, perhaps the biggest thing that's come through is your storage facility of aircraft at Alice Springs Airport. Right. You know, I understand it's it's certainly a great viewing site for those who want to go to the airport and see it. And I've I've seen it the many times I've flown into Alice just how incredible it is to see all those Boeing aircraft sitting there.

GOETZ: It's surreal, isn't it?

MCCARTHY: Yeah, it's kind of. But it's also just symbolic of the devastation to the aviation industry around the world. But the bright light is that Alice Springs and the weather and the desert climate is perfect for caring and catering and maintaining those aircraft, and that creates jobs. We heard that 50 to 100 engineers are required in Alice Springs just to maintain all those aircraft.

GOETZ: Wow. So it is a peculiar economy itself that has popped up as a result of the pandemic.

MCCARTHY: That's right. And we've asked questions of the Northern Territory Chamber of Commerce and and also other sectors in aviation to provide more evidence as to just what it's provided economically, especially to the central Australian economy, but also to the Northern Territory economy as a whole. We've heard from Subu Pacific Air that flies from the Philippines normally to Sydney and other places. It has had 19 aircraft at Alice Springs Airport and it now has, I think, about eight because they've been able to fly their aircraft back home and continue flying. And they just said thank you. It's just incredible to be able to park their aircraft there. Otherwise they would have had to go to the United States and find some desert country there.

GOETZ: Wow. There you go.

MCCARTHY: Learning lots on this Inquiry.

GOETZ: Yeah, fascinating. And the Royal Flying Doctor Service also made an argument today that better funding for regional air routes would help boost the population numbers in those areas in the wake of the covid exodus from from bigger cities. That's certainly I think we've certainly seen here in Alice Springs, people sticking around a little longer or coming here to avoid lockdowns and that kind of thing. Here's RFDS Federation Executive Director Frank Quinlan.

Frank Quinlan, RFDS Federation Executive Director: It will require support not just in relation to health services, but, you know, it's education services, employment arrangements across the board. I think that ought to be a focus, because if there is a silver lining in terms of this providing an opportunity for people to move to the bush to escape cities, then we ought to support that.

GOETZ: That's Frank Quinlan. Senator, what's stopping more funding for regional air routes?

MCCARTHY: Well, I think it's a case of what this inquiry is looking into. We know that there has to be, you know, planes back in the air, you know, more broadly speaking. But for the RFDS and the evidence it gave, we were certainly appreciative to know of the work they're doing. And can I just add I'll just digress a sec to your question. But they have provided over 20000 vaccines to communities and also provided another 15,000 vaccines to other organisations that are providing them. So we've been able to see their work increase throughout covid-19. And I think that this enquiry is also going to certainly make certain recommendations, I'd say, just in relation to, you know, the funding possibilities for the aviation sector. Whether those recommendations are taken up as another thing, of course, but clearly that that is a serious matter.

GOETZ: Well, that was my next question, I guess, as far as a key question of this committee being to figure out some measures to help some of these affected industries like tourism in the medium term. What are some examples of how the federal government could help?

MCCARTHY: Well, obviously, the grants programs are really important. There has been a great deal of mention around JobKeeper and JobSeeker and the support that both of those provided over the last, you know, over 2020, early 21. And many in the hospitality industry in particular certainly want to see some more support around that. But we did hear, too, that in the Northern Territory with the tourism voucher scheme, a lot of the hospitality areas and accommodation in particular do benefit from that as well. So I think that's a really good example that certainly our Senate Inquiry can put towards the federal government to consider.

GOETZ: All right, and these obviously hearings are a nice opportunity to, like you say, find out some some really interesting, you know, aspects of the industry. But are they going to be any major changes stemming from what we've heard today?

MCCARTHY: Well, I certainly know that we've got a lot to digest from these last couple of days of hearings and we've got more to go. We are going through until March next year in terms of our sorry, October this year, in terms of our report to the parliament. So we've still got a little way to go. But I think the important thing here is to find out what the Federal government can do to save the tourism industry right across Australia and the aviation industry, most in particular.

GOETZ: That's Northern Territory Senator Malarndirri McCarthy speaking there from the Senate Committee on Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport hearing into aviation that was happening here in the Territory today.