Tamworth Regional Council wasted no time lamenting the loss of Australian Defence Force flying training operations at its busy airport before it began the hunt for a successor.
The hunt was triggered by the loss of the ADF basic flying training school contract by BAe Systems and a decision by victor Lockheed Martin to move operations to Victoria’s East Sale.
The NSW regional centre threw its hat in the ring for the much-hyped Qantas pilot academy and, while it lost the first round to Toowoomba’s Wellcamp Airport, was considered a favourite for the academy’s second site.
It had also lined up a second possibility before both were gazumped by a surprise move by the Virgin Australia Group to set up its own world-class training centre when BAe leaves next year.
Virgin had approached the council and officials were impressed by the group’s innovative approach and a proposition that made best use of the extensive facilities.
These include high-quality accommodation for 234 people, sporting facilities as well substantial catering and recreation facilities.
There are also training facilities such as classrooms, a mini control tower and a simulator room as well as a big maintenance hangar.
Tamworth also sports parallel runways, dual taxiway and covered aircraft parking
“We were talking to Qantas and one other party, a major player in pilot training which is already resident on our airport now under a contract with BAe,” Tamworth Regional Council Mayor Col Murray said.
“And then Virgin approached the council, sought a meeting with the senior executives and came along and presented a pretty compelling business opportunity for Tamworth Airport.”
Bae is now winding down operations ahead of the expiry of the contract towards the end of 2019 and the council is moving towards acquisition of the buildings, which are on council land.
“That’s an ongoing discussion which is moving comfortably towards a good conclusion for the council and the community,’’ Cr Murray said. “And we were provided with some financial assistance from the New South Wales Government in that acquisition.
“That put us in a really good negotiating position with a potential name brand for a pilot training operation on the airport.’’
Cr Murray said the fact Tamworth had three options substantiated the vision of previous civic leaders who in 1990 developed a proposition that led to facilities worth $73 million being built at the airport.
He said a stumbling block for Qantas had likely been that there were more facilities available than was reasonably needed for the company’s trading model.
“Virgin had an expanded training proposition which is under a commercial confidentiality lockdown at the moment,’’ he said.
“But it is a much expanded one which will deliver a better commercial return for the community.
“It is also a much bolder, more innovative and long-term proposition for our regional economy.’’
The nature of that proposition will be revealed in an announcement due at year’s end but Cr Murray said it would be big news for the industry when it’s disclosed.
Virgin Group chief executive John Borghetti described it as an “aviation centre of excellence” and hinted at international aspirations.
“Our industry is currently facing a global pilot shortage and this world-class facility will develop a pipeline of skilled pilots funnelling into the Virgin Australia Group and other airlines around the world,” he said.
A Virgin spokeswoman would not reveal details, saying the company needed to finalise negotiations with the council ahead of announcing cadet numbers and what the facility would look like.
But she said the existing pilot cadetship program would be widened to include other members of the group such as Tigerair and VARA.
The announcement highlights the potential for regional airports to play an active role in the flight training industry.
Wagner Corporation Director Denis Wagner also noted the importance of flight training as a source of regional economic development when welcoming Qantas’ announcement to house its pilot academy at Toowoomba Wellcamp Airport earlier this year.
That facility is expected to create more than 100 direct jobs and 300 indirect jobs during construction, and ongoing employment for up to 160 people.
For Tamworth, though, the flight school is as much about long term planning to support regional development.
The airport is part of the Tamworth Tomorrow strategy and also features in regional and state planning.
It is served from Brisbane by both QantasLink and Virgin turboprops and from Brisbane by Fly Corporate.
Tenants include a Qantas heavy maintenance facility for Bombardier turboprops, engineering company Sigma Aerospace and maintenance and engineering training firm AviSkills.
With passenger throughput of about 200,000 passenger movements a year, it boasts a control tower, a recently upgraded instrument landing system and a Civil Aviation Safety Authority regional office.
“It’s quite a significant airport for somewhere like Tamworth,“ Cr Murray said.
“But nothing happens by accident. I’ve always believed in the old saying that the harder you work, the luckier you get.
“Council has been working very hard on maturing our regional economy.”
The airport is capable of handling Airbus A320 and Boeing 737 aircraft and council has a number of irons in the fire.
It has just spent $6 million on its terminal and Cr Murray said it was “fairly well down the road towards international freight capacity”.
“We’ve had that on our masterplan since 2015 and we’ve been working actively with the state and federal government as long-term strategy to investigate that.
“We have extraordinary interest form Asia. If that was matched by the interest from Australia, we would be up and running now.
“The demand for high-value Australia produce is very strong. We have three abattoirs – we’ve a lamb and a beef and a chicken abattoir here in town – and this is one of the most productive agricultural areas around the nation.”
Written 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.