One of Australia's most ambitious smaller airlines says it intends to add Canberra as a destination.
Regional Airlines Australia (REX) told The Canberra Times it planned to add theACT airport to its expanding network after taking delivery of the first of a fleet of new, larger passenger planes.
It said it had been in discussions with ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr as it plans its expansion from a small regional airline into a national operation.
Until now, REX has flown smaller 60 Saab 340s, each capable of carrying 30 or so passengers but it has leased six Boeing 737s which can carry six times as many passengers.
The new planes are being tried out between Melbourne and Sydney but the airline will expand to other state and territory capitals if the economics works out.
An insider at the airline said it was an "intention" and not just an ambition.
"If our services prove successful, we will inject up to 10 aircraft into the domestic market by the end of 2021. From there, we intend to develop a full domestic airline network, linking all the capital cities over time," Rex's Deputy Chairman, John Sharp, said.
Canberra Airport chief executive Stephen Byron won't be drawn on whether he is talking to REX beyond saying that the airport is "pretty active in courting" airlines.
He has marketed the airport vigorously as passenger numbers plummeted to not far above zero at the deepest trough in the epidemic.
REX is ambitious, en route to expand from a regional airline flying between towns to a national one linking cities.
It and Qantas are in a "David-and-Goliath" struggle, with REX accusing the national carrier of taking on regional routes just to prevent others getting in. It's taken its dispute to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission.
REX said it had "grave concerns that Qantas is embarking on an opportunistic strategy of flooding the regional airline market with additional excess capacity to eliminate weaker regional competitors, which will have devastating long term impacts on regional aviation.
"History has shown that once regional airlines are squeezed out, the loss is permanent and regional and rural communities suffer the consequences. Qantas is choosing to incur huge losses on these routes."
"The ACCC has been alerted to these actions and we now call on the federal government to issue a second direction to the ACCC to provide it with more specific powers that will protect new entry and expansion," REX said.
But the competition between the airlines ought to be good news for Canberra airport and Canberra travellers. Ticket prices ought to be low because airlines are already competing.
Mr Byron thinks that Australia should be back to normal by the end of next year, and once international travel resumes, the demand for it will be so great that Canberra Airport will regain services from Qatar Airways and Singapore Airlines.
On the latest figures, Canberra Airport is operating at 40.5 per cent of capacity. In the pre-COVID week starting on February 23, 66,120 passengers flew to and from it. Last week, there were 26,000. In the depths of the epidemic when Victoria and Queensland were closed, numbers fell to barely a hundred a day.
Mr Byron thinks the roll-out of the vaccine will transform the situation but it will still take time to recover. "It's not a cure-all. I think we'll have to wait until Christmas, '21," he said.
During the epidemic, Canberra Airport secured three new airlines as borders opened up.
Alliance Airlines started a twice-weekly service to the Sunshine Coast and Cairns.
Link Airways flies to Newcastle and Hobart and FlyPelican to Newcastle, Port Macquarie and the Sunshine Coast.
Mr Byron said that opening up air travel met not just an economic need but a mental need. He thought some states had been too hasty to restrict travel from New South Wales because of the current northern beaches outbreak.
"The trauma of these border closures is felt so heavily because people are looking forward to seeing family, grandparents more than ever," he said.
He said that you could see the relief when flights arrived from Melbourne because "they felt like they had been living in the attic or under the stairs".