LOOKING ROSY: Passengers exit a Virgin Blue flight at Ballina airport which has seen a marked increase in passenger numbers
LOOKING ROSY: Passengers exit a Virgin Blue flight at Ballina airport which has seen a marked increase in passenger numbers

Cheap flights have Ballina over the moon

By DAWN COHEN

AFTER threatening to crash last year Ballina's airport is now flying high, delivering a return to council and local businesses.

The airport delivered an increased income of $225,000 in the September to December quarter, the Ballina Shire Council general meeting heard last week.

The previous quarter operated at a loss.

So what is the secret ingredient in whipping up a couple of hundred thousand dollars in three months?

Planes full of passengers devouring cheaper flights from three competing airlines.

Ballina Shire Council civil services group manager John Truman said cheaper flights from Regional Express (REX) Airlines and the introduction of Virgin Blue's jet service have meant a boom in passenger numbers.

Virgin began jetting in up to 180 passengers each day from Sydney on August 5 last year.

Qantaslink and REX each fly in three times a day, on 35 to 38seat planes.

The doubling of seat numbers since July last year is a lifesaver for Willy and Allyson Small.

"We bought Ballina Airport Car Storage in 2001 asking 'What is the worst that could happen?'" said Mr Small.

Three months later, Ansett crashed.

Then September 11 and then 2003 delivered SARS.

"By 2004 a plane would land and you would see one person get off and that person would not want to store a car," the former New Zealander laughed.

He can afford to laugh now.

Since July he has watched 95,000 passengers disembark, compared with 76,000 for the entire year before that.

"We had to decide whether to bail out at the beginning of 2004, but we took a punt," he said.

"Changing the name to Ballina Byron Gateway Airport helped a lot, too."

Regional Express manager Maurice Gahan claims the cheaper prices as a REX initiative.

"We launched the cheaper flights with our $99 flights," he said.

"We wanted to stimulate regional markets so we approached councils to reduce landing tax so we could introduce cheaper flights."

Virgin is very happy with its service to Ballina, but has no plans to fly in more frequently.

"There is usually a plateau after the introduction of a new service," said Amanda Bolger, spokesperson for Virgin Airlines.

"We will see what happens after that."

Meanwhile, John Truman said he remains open to offers from any other airline wanting a piece of the Ballina-Byron pie.



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