QANTASLINK’S Central Highlands’ air service monopoly could be broken, with Virgin Blue confirming it is assessing Emerald as a possible regional route destination.
Central Highlands Regional Council Commercial Services general manager Col Dziewicki said it made sound business sense for a rival carrier to consider Emerald Airport, which is currently undergoing a $7 million terminal upgrade.
However, he threw up two immediate hurdles.
“We haven’t had any correspondence with Virgin for a couple of years and an issue that comes with this is we could go and spend $600,000-700,000 on baggage screening equipment that is needed solely for the service they provide, and they could turn around in a month and say it’s not working, and we’re left holding the baby,” he said.
“They would also have to get a concession from CASA because of the runway width.”
On the flipside, Mr Dziewicki welcomed the opportunity for more competitive ticket pricing for travellers.
“It would drive prices down I believe, and put more volume through the airport, which would allow us to control our own pricing better.
“There’s definitely money to be made in it, so I’d certainly be looking at it.”
Mr Dziewicki said historically the Central Highlands had shown it could support two commercial airlines when Flight West was the second carrier until it folded in 2001.
A 370 per cent increase in passenger numbers through Emerald Airport since 1998-99 to 120,000 last year was another strong indicator the marketplace was big enough to support two large commercial carriers as well as the existing raft of smaller-scale operators.
“I guess this year the growth hasn’t been as much, but it’s growth where a lot of other places are showing losses, so we’re still a strong market here,” commented Mr Dziewicki.
“The whisper is the mining boom is about to really hit the area, but you ain’t seen anything yet.
“We are in a good position to be prepared for strong growth in services.”
Mr Dziewicki said indications were Qantaslink was going to take three of the six check-ins at the new terminal, due for completion in June, and establish a Qantas lounge for its customers.
The airline was showing ‘plenty of confidence’ in the future of the Central Highlands, he added, praising Qantaslink’s ability to consistently provide ‘good aircraft, good schedules and good service’.
Virgin’s media relations manager Amanda Bolger confirmed the Emerald route was under consideration, as well as an expansion into the Gladstone market, but was short on detail.
Gladstone Airport is currently undergoing a $65 million transformation of its runway.
“It’s no secret we’ve been looking at it (Emerald) for a while,” she said.
“It is one of a number of sites across Australia that has the potential to benefit from Virgin Blue services… but there are no further plans at this stage.”
Virgin would use its 66-seater Embraer 170 and 92-seat 190 jets on any expanded regional network.
Central Queensland News did some comparative internet shopping yesterday, looking for the lowest fares offered by Qantaslink on its Emerald-Brisbane run and Virgin Blue’s Rockhampton-Brisbane return flights.
On Wednesday, January 13, you could soar out of Emerald for $209 on the 6.55pm flight. From Rocky, with no luggage, it was $58.50 for a booking.
Returning on Friday, January 15, the 5.45am Qantaslink flight from Brisbane was $121.
Fifteen minutes later on Virgin Blue, the Go! Fare was $42.50, sans baggage which attracts an extra $10.
A full fare Emerald-Brisbane return is $1100.
Virgin Blue’s premium economy out of Rocky is $858.