Outback mayor calls for action on soaring airfares from Alice Springs

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Christmas is traditionally a quiet time of year in Alice Springs. The heat, flies and isolation often drive people south in the summer months.

With domestic travel prices at a 10-year high, according to a ACCC report published earlier in September, the residents of Alice Springs try to plan the cheapest summer exit strategy.

Mark Carter and his family of four, like many families, were trying to figure out the best way to get to the Coffs Coast in New South Wales.

“We looked at driving all the way [to Port Macquarie, NSW]which adds up to about 75 hours of driving,” he said.

“I seemed to spend about 75 hours of the Christmas break just sitting and driving and staring at the tarmac, so it wasn’t appealing at all.”

However, a direct flight came at a hefty price of around $8,000 for the family.

“We looked at it and just thought, ‘this is crazy money’,” Mr Carter said.

“This is what you would expect for international flights – we’re just traveling within Australia.”

A man, woman and two small children standing near Yulara/Ayres Rock.
Mark Carter and his family on a previous visit to Yulara.(Provided by: Mark Carter)

Carter said they discovered cheaper flights from Yulara, 500 kilometers from Alice Springs, by chance.

“We ended up taking this [option]it is not ideal.

“No one wants to start an interstate trip with a five-hour drive to get to an airport, especially when we have a really good airport right here on our doorstep.

“But the prices are astronomical. So you have to.”

Carter said “astronomical” prices were adding to the sense of isolation in the heart of Australia.

“Some parts of the city are being wracked with crime right now … there’s a lot to contend with,” he said.

“People sometimes need to get away and refresh and see family.

“When it feels like these big companies are making prices, it makes you wonder about the long-term viability of the city,” he said.

Mr Carter said many people would not choose to live in Alice Springs if prices continued to rise.

“Who’s going to be happy living here long-term if you’re facing a massive bill, a huge chunk of your annual income just to have a break?” he said.

More affordable for families

Alice Springs Mayor Matt Paterson is calling on Qantas to reduce the price of airline tickets and consider bringing its low-cost carrier, Jetstar, to the outback town.

View of Alice Springs in the Northern Territory.
Alice Springs can be an expensive place to fly to and from.(ABC News: Bridget Judd)

He said the town’s viability was under threat when residents not only felt flights were too expensive, but were also in a position where they had to save up all year for a Christmas holiday.

“We are in talks with Qantas and other airlines about how we can work together to make it more affordable for families,” he said.

Sir. Paterson said in roundtable discussions with the national carrier that the airline was open to a similar flat fare as is normal for flights between a regional center and the capital.

“I think Adelaide, as a resident fare, would certainly be well received.

“It’s not something that’s been done anywhere else around the country … but where we’re located geographically, it certainly makes sense that we could extend it to Adelaide as well.”

Despite having no assurances of an arrival time for a resident ticket south of the city, Mr Paterson was hopeful.

“I welcome the discussions with Qantas that they have not ruled it out,” he said.

“Them taking advice from Alice Springs on this can certainly alleviate some concerns.”

Sir. Paterson said the residents were on their way “because it’s so difficult financially to fly from here”.

“If the plane tickets were cheaper and you could get in and out in less time, more people would live here because they could get away more often,” he said.

Commercial decision

NT Tourism and Hospitality Minister Nicole Manison said in a statement that “airline pricing and scheduling is a commercial decision for each airline”.

Northern Territory frontbencher Nicole Manison stands on the fifth floor balcony of the NT Parliament.
Northern Territory Minister for Tourism and Hospitality, Nicole Manison.(ABC News: Michael Franchi)

“Most airlines around the world are struggling to meet demand as they scale up operations post-COVID, with unprecedented issues such as particularly high fuel prices and continued staff shortages,” she said.

“The impacts are not unique to the Northern Territory, but we appreciate the acute impact on territories, particularly for the people of Central Australia.”

Manison said her government was in open communication with Qantas about improvements for Alice Springs residents.

“We recognize the importance of more than one airline operating to maintain a competitive landscape and airline attraction is a priority agenda item,” she said.

Qantas has a fixed ticket to Darwin, while Virgin has a fixed ticket to Adelaide, both from Alice Springs.

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