Co-funding arrangements, staff retention and maintaining regulatory compliance are among the issues facing regional airports as they grapple with the fallout of COVID-19, according to AAA NSW Director Julie Stewart
While regional airlines have received $198 million in targeted Federal government aid, Stewart says the only Federal subsidy available to regional airports is the JobKeeper package and not every organisation will be eligible.
She also warns that many existing grants available to the airports are subject to co-funding arrangements and that raising the matching cash has become a problem as passenger revenues all but evaporate.
“I think that that’s probably a concern for a lot of regional airports,” she says.
Stewart is an industry veteran who took up the role of manager of the Ballina-Byron Gateway Airport in January after a lengthy stint as manager of airport and aviation development at Tamworth Regional Airport.
Prior to moving to Tamworth, she spent 15 years at Sydney Airport where she honed her planning and contingency as well as her emergency planning skills on major events such as the 2000 Olympics and the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
She says there is an argument for a regional airport aid package similar to the one given to airlines.
This would help with necessary infrastructure requirements and in maintaining operational status and compliance.
While Regular Public Transport (RPT) traffic had fallen substantially, Stewart observes, airports still need to remain open and there are costs associated with doing that.
“Some of the airports are looking at whether they can redeploy their staff to other locations within their airports as a cost saving,” she says.
“But the airport still needs to operate. We’ve still got emergency services coming in, we’ve still got general aviation flying.
“As the RPT airlines are down servicing, charter activity can occur as well. There are essential services people moving around and I know the mining industry is still in operation.”
Even maintaining regulatory compliance comes at a cost, Stewart notes.
“You can’t just mothball an airport, it has to be maintained all the time,” she says. “I can mothball a terminal, but I can’t mothball the aerodrome.
“So you have to make sure that you’ve got staff that are qualified to do the compliance inspections and the compliance work that’s required at regional airports.”
This leads to another worry for regional airports that may lose skilled staff after they are stood down and find jobs elsewhere.
“In the regional space that’s tough,” she says. “It’s hard to get people into regional locations and you spend a lot of time and money training them up, getting them accredited and then you lose them.
“That’s the risk coming out of this, we need to make sure we’ve got the appropriate workforce in place. And that will take time as well as money.”
Normally the third biggest airport in NSW in terms of passenger movements, the COVID-19 crisis has robbed Ballina-Byron of all RPT services except twice-weekly FlyPelican flights.
But Stewart expects some movement with the redeployment of essential government workers and medical staff as well as compassionate travel.
She says she’s making sure she’s keeping communication open with various stakeholders so everyone knows how they’re positioned when things start ramping up.
“With us, we should start seeing planes as soon as it looks safe.” She says.
“Whether that’s six months or nine months’ time, they’ll start flying again and we’ll actually have a trickle of traffic in the meantime.”
However, she agrees it may not be the SARS-style rebound pundits once predicted, noting people could be nervous about travelling again and are likely to look at domestic travel first.
This will include people who will have put off events such as elective surgery and visits to specialists, as well as some who will want to break the cabin fever, and emergency services staff desperate for a break.
“But the people who have been on stand-down wages are not going to be able to afford to get out there straight away,” she adds.
“It will be a slow recovery, I would imagine, as people get their funds together to be able to go on the holiday they want to.”
And much like the recovery from 9/11 saw a massive ramping up in airport security, she believes the post-COVID world will be a different place for airports.
One possibility is that the outbreak will see new technologies regularly discussed at AAA national conferences could be introduced at an increased pace.
“I’m imagining there’s going to a lot of hygiene issues that are going to be looked at very closely,” she says.
“I guess we’re looking to the government and the health agencies as to how we best handle that moving forward.
“Is it going to be a touchless environment that we’re working in so we have less contact.
“Already we’re embracing the technology, but what does that mean? Does everybody handle their own luggage and there are less people touching those items?
“The kiosk, which is a touch space, is that still here? What does it look like?”
This raises cost concerns for regional airports in much the same way security did and Stewart says there’s an added issue in that regional communities like human contact and have a strong connection with the people serving them.
But she sees a wider post-COVID-19 re-evaluation potentially benefitting regional communities in terms of business opportunities for more onshore manufacturing that could spur greater regional connectivity.
One thing about which she is certain is that aviation is resilient and regional airports are used to dealing with changing circumstances such as delays, cancellations and even route changes.
“We’ll deal with it,” she says. “We know it will bounce back; we know what we need to do.”
By Steve Creedy
About Steve Creedy
An award-winning journalist, Steve began covering aviation in the United States in the early nineties before returning to Australia later that decade and editing The Australian’s aviation section for 17 years. He is editor of Airline Ratings and has co-authored books on industry initiatives aimed at reducing greenhouse emissions.
Steve has joined the AAA to write interesting and informative editorial on the aviation industry.