North West Queensland has its airline hearing day

There’s no real answers yet but North West Queensland had its day to ask questions and give its experiences to the airline inquiry in Cloncurry and Mount Isa on Thursday.

With the high price of air fares a hot button issue across the region, the hearing into "The operation, regulation and funding of air route service delivery to rural, regional and remote communities"  was eagerly anticipated.

Cloncurry hosted a formal hearing in the morning with Cloncurry Shire Council, local resident Hamish Griffin, MITEZ, the Isolated Children's Parents Association and Mount Isa and McKinlay councils all giving evidence.

Then in the afternoon it was Mount Isa's turn with almost 100 people turnng up to the Good Shepherd Catholic College for an informal hearing.

Four senators from the committee attended in Cloncurry: Rex Patrick (NXT) Barry O'Sullivan (LNP), Richard Colbeck (LNP) and Anthony Chisholm (ALP) and all bar Senator Colbeck went on to the Mount Isa forum co-chaired by state member for Traeger Robbie Katter and Mayor Joyce McCulloch.

Cloncurry Mayor Greg Campbell opened the Curry hearing saying the issue was one of “affordability on a day-to-day-basis”.

The committee spent some time scrutinising Cloncurry Airport charges but co-chair Senator Barry O’Sullivan said their costs of $35 a head which includes security charges made it hard to justify the airlines’ case it was a significant addition to costs.

Mr Griffin, a long-time advocate of cheaper flights who has used social media to great effect, spoke next.

Mr Griffin wanted to talk about the combined airline submission under the banner “A4ANZ” which he described as a “cartel”.

However he was warned by Senator O’Sullivan that any testimony that was “adverse” to the airlines might have to be held in camera.

Mr Griffin had better luck when speaking about airline “dynamic pricing” which is the practice of pricing items judged by the customer’s perceived ability to pay.

He said when Cloncurry flooded and road closed prices went sky high.

When his post to Virgin complaining about the practice went viral and people started checking prices online, the demand drove the price higher still.

MITEZ CEO Glen Graham called for hardship payments to be made for people who have to attend funerals on short notice though Senator O’Sullivan warned that system could be abused.

“"We all know more aunties die on the last day of the test than any day,” he said.

Mount Isa City Council spoke about the economic impacts and said the 2017 Triple J One Night Stand crowd was well done on expected numbers due to high airfare costs to get to Mount Isa from the coast.

In the afternoon session at Mount Isa, speaker after speaker told about their experiences of dealing with the problem.

Katrina Gall’s story was heartbreaking as she and her husband were forced to moved away after spending $20,000 to visit her father. When he passed away and they moved back to Mount Isa, they faced the same problem when her husband’s parent also fell ill.

“Everyone here in Mount Isa has family from away and there are times when you need to get away quickly in a tragedy," she said.

Kim Coghlan also had similar sized bills supporting her children to play sport away from home and they had the same dreams as kids on the coast.

Commerce North West president Travis Crowther said the issue was not just air fares and governments needed to incentivise people to move to regional areas – a point Cloncurry Mayor Greg Campbell also raised saying tax breaks for regional areas was needed.

Tony McGrady asked the committee what powers they had to enforce findings and wondered what would happen if airlines only “noted” the recommendations and did not act on them.

Senator O’Sullivan said they could enforce actions through regulations and the airlines themselves would be appearing in front of the committee later in the year.

Member for Traeger Robbie Katter said the committee should also look at the case for re-regulating the Mount Isa-Townsville route with a lot of evidence to suggest many currently travel to Townsville by car before getting cheaper fares to other destinations.