By Caroline Wilkie

The Federal government inquiry into the operation, regulation and funding of air route service delivery to rural, regional and remote communities has provided an opportunity to highlight the unique challenges faced by regional airports.

The Australian Airports Association (AAA) recently surveyed its members to better understand the challenges they face, with 51 regional airports from across Australia responding.

The survey confirmed what anecdotal evidence has been telling us for some time: regional airports are doing it tough.

Often operated by local councils, some regional airports are faced with the dilemma of running at a loss, or increasing airport charges and risk losing services.

Nearly 40 per cent of respondents expected persistent budget deficits over the next 10 years, even as regional airport costs are expected to rise by a further 38 per cent.

Despite financial hardship, regional airports have been slow to increase airport charges, as they recognise the importance of accessible air services for their communities.

Three quarters of respondents said their airport charges had stayed the same or reduced in real terms over the last five years.

But this has not stopped some regional councils feeling the pressure to go further, with 68 per cent of respondents reporting they’d been asked by airlines to reduce airport charges.

Of most concern, a quarter of respondents said these requests came on the back of a threat to reduce vital services to their region.

With the vast majority of regional passengers carried by airlines owned by the domestic aviation duopoly, and in many cases only one airline serving an airport, councils’ negotiating power can be extremely limited.

As they keep charges low, some councils are already subsidising essential maintenance and airport improvements.

Regional airfares in many communities remain high, with local people hit hard by the cost of travelling to medical appointments, family events and business meetings.

Ensuring regional services remain affordable and accessible requires a collective commitment from airlines, airports and government to hold true to the ethos of fair and equal opportunity for everyone.

With 30 per cent of Australians living in regional and remote areas, it’s simply not fair for the cost of airfares to prevent them achieving the same economic and social outcomes as their city counterparts.

It’s time to identify a sustainable way forward for the future, that puts our regions ahead of profits.

This column appeared in The Australian on 16 February 2018. Caroline Wilkie is the Chief Executive Officer of the Australian Airports Association. To view the AAA’s submission to the inquiry into the operation, regulation and funding of air route service delivery to rural, regional and remote communities, click here.