Big regional airports defy Covid to post strong passenger growth

Airports at Orange, Ballina and the Sunshine Coast have reported strong passenger growth as airlines boost their services to these and other regional centres.

South-east Queensland’s Sunshine Coast Airport has gone from having two domestic routes pre-Covid (to Sydney and Melbourne) to seven, with the addition of Adelaide, Canberra, Cairns, Emerald and Newcastle.

Orange, in central-western NSW, is another regional centre seeing the benefits of the “Covid effect”, with the city council extending the airport car park to help meet demand.

Deputy mayor Sam Romano, chairman of the Orange Airport community committee, said the “whole game had changed” because of the pandemic.

“The city has gone gangbusters and the airlines have a lot to do with that.

“I’m very grateful we’ve got Link Airways and Qantas flights every day to Brisbane, and two or three days to Melbourne,” Mr Romano said.

“These airlines aren’t here just because Orange is a nice place; they’re making money, the business is here.”

Coffs Harbour Airport is also experiencing surging traffic, with an extra 200,000 airline seats scheduled to operate into the town this year on flights from Melbourne, Brisbane and Sydney.

Airport chief executive Andrew Brodie said it is a major turnaround after having no flights at all for several months last year.

“It’s quite amazing. The airlines are definitely thinking differently and for the first time we’re getting Qantas mainline from Melbourne in the morning and afternoon,” Mr Brodie said.

In the case of Ballina Byron Airport, new connections to Canberra and Dubbo plus added capacity out of Sydney and Melbourne saw passenger numbers exceed pre-Covid figures between November and January.

Qantas has announced 26 new regional routes to cater to rising demand, in the process sparking threats from Regional Express Airlines (Rex) to stop flying routes on which Qantas now competes.

Rex has just begun jet services between Sydney and Melbourne and is reportedly also adding the Gold Coast to its network.

A third operator, Virgin Australia, currently flies to 28 regional destinations and has partnered with Alliance Aviation to operate an expanded regional network, possibly including Tamworth, Mildura and Port Macquarie.