by Imogen Hartmann, Associate Editor, Monkey Media

Australia is home to more than 400 civilian airports, with the majority of these located in regional areas. While these regional airports might be smaller than their city counterparts, their contribution to the regions they service, and Australia’s wider economy, is vital.

Regional airports are critical to Australian industries such as tourism, resources, logistics and emergency services. In 2018, the Australian Airports Association (AAA) found that regional airports and the communities they served accounted for 45 per cent of Australia’s overall tourism industry.

The AAA also found that, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, around 15 million passengers travelled through regional airports, with over 360,000 flights per year. For example, Mildura Airport, in Victoria, is a vital cog in the region’s economy and is geographically important given its location on the New South Wales border and proximity to South Australia.

The airport provides critical connectivity for business and leisure travel. In the Murray region, where the Mildura airport is situated, tourism is the second largest employer, supporting over 18,000 jobs and contributing over $2 billion in direct expenditure to the local economy.

Facilitating more than just domestic travel and tourism, regional airports also house around 500 aircraft to be deployed for firefighting duties, support 4,450 jobs, and enable over 6,000 emergency evacuations per year. The Balgo Hill Airport in the Kimberley region, Western Australia, is critical for facilitating emergency evacuations because of the remote area it services. In the past five years, the airport has seen 459 Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS) landings.

The AAA has dubbed the regions as the “backbone” of Australia, and their access to markets, healthcare, export and produce, which are facilitated by regional airports, is thereby critical to the nation’s success and prosperity.

Support campaign gets off the ground

In 2018, the AAA, the Australian Local Government Association (ALGA), Regional Aviation Association of Australia (RAAA), and Australian Logistics Council (ALC), launched the Protect Regional Airports Association to seek direct Federal Government funding support for essential infrastructure at regional airports.

The Protect Regional Airports Association called on the Federal Government to establish a $100 million fund to be delivered over four years, using a co-contribution funding model in partnership with state and local governments.

The campaign ultimately resulted in a 2019-20 Federal Budget allocation, called the Regional Airports Program. The program produces competitive grants intended to improve safety, delivery of essential goods, healthcare and passenger air services, and enable more connectivity between Australia’s regions, domestic and global market opportunities.

Mayday! Events of 2020 hit council-funded airports hard

The impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic were felt across airports all around the country – and the world. An Airport Monitoring Report from the ACCC revealed that operating profits from four of Australia’s largest airports (Brisbane, Melbourne, Perth and Sydney) hit a decade-low level following a dramatic fall in passengers during the crisis.

Australia’s regions were hit just as hard, with passenger numbers down by 70-90 per cent, and airports hemorrhaging up to $7 million every month, as they struggled to maintain critical services with decreased revenue. The pandemic also resulted in thousands of staff redundancies in the aviation sector, with many stood down and forced to find other work.

AAA Chief Executive, James Goodwin, said that due to this, funding for regional airport infrastructure had never been so important. “COVID-19 has knocked regional airports for six, pushing passenger numbers down by more than 70 per cent and resulting in $7 million of lost revenue every month,” Mr Goodwin said.

“To make it even more challenging, council-owned airports don’t have access to Job Keeper but they continue to stay open as a critical service for the regional communities which rely on them.”

Federal funding for the future

$41.2 million investment for COVID recovery

In June 2020, the Federal Government also announced a $41.2 million investment, again through its Regional Airports Program, in 60 regional airports to assist the aviation industry through the COVID-19 pandemic.

Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Development, Michael McCormack said the Regional Airports Program would assist the owners of regional airports to undertake essential works, and promote aviation safety and access for regional Australians.

“For our regional communities, the local airport is an essential link to the rest of Australia,” Mr McCormack said. Mr Goodwin added, “This program will help regional airports deliver projects which create long-term benefits, so communities can continue to connect to work, essential services, family and friends no matter where they live.

“Regional airports will be able to take advantage of fewer aircraft landing to start work on critical projects such as runway upgrades, taxiway improvements, new fencing and lighting to make air travel safer and more reliable.”

Screening infrastructure grant funding

At the end of 2020, the Federal Government made amendments to security screening rules at airports around the country, introducing a tier-style framework for regional airport requirements. The change would see around eight regional airports, including Longreach Airport and Barcaldine Airport, cease passenger security screening, while another 13 airports, including Mt Isa Airport, would need to upgrade their security arrangements.

To support regional airports’ implementation of the new security requirements, and to enable airports to carry out necessary infrastructure works in preparation for increased passengers as more air services started to take flight again, the Federal Government launched the $66 million Regional Airports Screening Infrastructure (RASI) Program.

Mr McCormack, said, “The aviation industry was one of the first and hardest-hit industries during COVID-19, and as we look to get even more planes back in the sky, we are continuing to support regional airports to ensure they bounce back strongly and can continue to connect our regions.

“This critical grant funding will reduce the costs to regional airports of security screening compliance at regional airports across Australia, including Rockhampton, Townsville, Whyalla, Ayers Rock (Uluru), Ballina Byron and Broome.

“Not only will this provide a significant boost for the airports, it will benefit regional passengers across Australia by ensuring those grant-funded screening costs don’t flow through to ticket prices.” Mr McCormack said the RASI program was part of the Government’s $715 million COVID-19 Australian Airline Financial Relief Package, which offered critical relief to the sector.

“It’s been a difficult year for the sector, its workers and those communities that rely on their local airports,” Mr McCormack said.

Broome Airport runway 10, looking south

States support their regions

Recognising the support that regional airports would need to help communities get back on their feet following the COVID pandemic, several states also launched funding programs to facilitate recovery and development.

The Western Australian Government allocated almost $3 million in Regional Airports Development Scheme (RADS) grants to 25 projects across the state. Upgrades to regional airports include resealing of runways, upgrading airstrip lighting, airport development planning, installation of animal exclusion fencing, and improving operational safety and facilities for the RFDS operations.

In Victoria, $850,000 was invested by the State Government to support Mildura Airport in its recovery efforts. The new support will help the airport recover from a 95 per cent drop in revenue experienced between March and November 2020.

During that time, passenger numbers dropped from over 20,000 a month to around 500 a month, with volumes now slowly rebuilding.

Regions a priority

Driving economic development in regional communities was also highlighted in Infrastructure Australia’s 2021 Infrastructure Priority List, which included the addition of 44 new proposals and identified a $59 billion project pipeline of nationally significant investment opportunities.

The Priority List outlined the areas of infrastructure investment that should be focused on in 2021, and these included infrastructure development in regional communities, improving digital connectivity in regional areas, and investing in digital health services in regional and remote Australia, among other priorities.

These focus areas are more pertinent than ever, with a 200 per cent increase in people moving from capital areas to regional areas in the wake of the pandemic, as people’s work patterns and use of critical infrastructure shifts significantly.

Despite falling revenue and passenger numbers from the pandemic, Mr Goodwin said that what was not going to change was Australia’s regional airports’ dedication to the communities they service.

“Despite these continued losses, airports have been good corporate citizens throughout the pandemic, staying open to assist the government in repatriating Australians, bringing freight and essential supplies in and out of the country, and moving essential workers to where they’re needed most,” Mr Goodwin said.

For the full list of the regional airports funded under the latest round of funding in the Regional Airports Program, go to:

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