Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Big Sky Express & New England's Aviation Woes

In previous posts I began to sketch out the history of aviation in New England starting with New England Airways.

Over the last fifty years New England has seen the rise and fall of a number of local airlines. East West Airlines, Eastern, Oxley, Tamair all rose either to be taken over or forced to close for trading reasons. Other airlines such as Impulse, Hazelton and Rex have entered the market, made a special feature of New England and then been forced to withdraw in whole and part.

We can now add Big Sky Express and Sunshine Express to the growing list.

I was sorry to see that Big Sky Express had struck problems. Big Sky was unusual as a community based airline. Following the loss of air services to Gunnedah and Inverell back in the 1990s, , these communities including Shire Councils and businesses combined along with private investors to create Big Sky Express as a community airline. Services began with flights from Inverell and Gunnedah to Sydney, with Grafton and Taree services added later.

The Brisbane based Transair provided aircraft and operational support the new community airline. This model - a community or locally owned business backed up by a service provider - has become very common in Regional Australia as a way of filling gaps left by the withdrawal of big metro based businesses from parts of the country. The Bendigo Bank is perhaps the best known example.

The model depends for its success upon the strength of the service provider. Unfortunately for Big Sky, TransAir had been experiencing problems for some time including a major accident that killed 15, was grounded in November over safety concerns, and has now closed entirely with possible criminal charges pending. Big Sky has closed as a consequence.

We can also add Sunshine Express to the list. Sunshine withdrew from all scheduled services in September.

The Armidale Express reported the airline's departure with the last Armidale-Brisbane flight - one way only - on September 30.

According to Sunshine's Laffer, "The reason behind our decision to withdraw airline services is that in two of our key markets in Queensland, Hervey Bay and Biloela, QantasLink has announced that they are entering those markets," Mr Laffer said.

"As a result of that we have no alternative other than to withdraw our services from other markets to maintain a viable business".

Prior to its withdrawal, Sunshine Express was able to secure interest for the Port Macquarie-Coffs Harbour-Brisbane air service with the Canberra-based Brindabella Airlines taking over the route plus one aircraft and a number of staff. However, this left Armidale and Tamworth without a Brisbane air service.

Sunshine's withdrawal came just two months after REX Airlines withdrew from the Armidale-Sydney service, leaving Armidale with with only the Sydney-Armidale service provided by QantasLink.

The last time Armidale was in this position air traffic declined very sharply because of the high fares set by QantasLink. REX's entry to the market with consequent fare reductions saw a significant increase in air travel.

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