Danielle Doyle and her family, including oldest son Tom (centre) who goes to school in Brisbane. (Supplied: Danielle Doyle)
Regional Queenslanders are demanding a Senate inquiry take action to reduce the cost of airfares, arguing it is more costly to fly across the state than to many international destinations.
Tom Doyle walking on the plane, taken when Tom was leaving for school in 2017 from Mount Isa airport, headed for Brisbane.
As the final public hearing for the Senate inquiry into flight services begins in the north-west Queensland town of Cloncurry, Australians living in remote regions are resorting to extraordinary lengths to be heard.
Danielle Doyle is on a 13-hour return road trip from her Northern Territory cattle station to speak at the Cloncurry hearing, intent on venting her frustration at the $2,500 she pays for her son’s commute to and from school.
“The return airfares vary depending on if there’s a sale or not, so it can be anywhere from $460 up to around $700 or $800 return,” Ms Doyle said.
The Doyles live on Mittiebah Station, a 1.7-million-acre property five hours’ drive north-west of Mount Isa.
Getting her son, Tom, to school is Brisbane is not an easy venture.
“We have to firstly drive him into Mt Isa so that’s a five-hour drive. Half of that’s on dirt roads with about 12 gates, so then we pop him on a plane which is a two-and-a-half hour trip down to Brisbane,” she said.
Even with the long drive, Ms Doyle believes it is the cost of airfares that are giving her a raw deal.
“We would love to be able to get down there each term to see him, but sometimes it just doesn’t work out that way,” she said.
“It is really hard because on top of the airfares, you’ve got your trip to town, accommodation, hire car when you get to Brisbane and it’s just thousands upon thousands of dollars just to go down for one visit.”
The Senate inquiry, hosted by the rural and regional affairs and transport committee, has travelled across Western Australia, the Northern Territory and Queensland to hold public hearings on the operation, regulation and funding of air route service delivery to rural, regional and remote communities.
The inquiry received more than 160 submissions of first-hand experiences, and has heard from hundreds at the public hearings.
Queensland Labor senator Anthony Chisholm, who has travelled to the public hearings across Queensland, said they had been an emotional experience.
“Some people giving evidence have been really emotional,” he said.
“It’s been a real eye opener for me about the social impacts from the inability for people to travel for family, and also the impact on parents who have to travel to visit their kids at boarding school.”
Qantas said booking early was the best way to cut airfare costs. (Gladstone Regional Council: Supplied)
‘People have to live out here’
Many submissions detail frustration at commercial airlines for high prices.
Fly-in, fly-out worker Deslie Anderson said she stayed with family in Cloncurry rather than flying back to Brisbane.
“I think it’s wrong — people have to live out here,” she said.
“That’s where jobs are and they shouldn’t have to suffer because they chose to live here or they have to be here for work.”
Deslie Anderson said many people had to be in remote areas because of work. (ABC News: Harriet Tatham)
Former Cloncurry resident Colin Todd agreed.
“I lived here for four years and it cost me more to fly Brisbane return than it did to fly to Japan return.”
When previously accused of increasing flight prices during a flood event, both Qantas and Virgin Australia said in statements that the later people book, the more expensive flights can get.
In a statement, Qantas suggested the solution was booking early.
“The closer to the date of travel, the more expensive the fare is, likely because of demand,” the airline said.
“Less expensive seats will be purchased first, usually well in advance.”
But Ms Doyle, who booked all of her son’s school flights a year in advance, said that explanation did not fly.
“I’ve booked all of them, up to when he flies home for the last time in November,” she said.
“I did save a few hundred dollars — but all in all, it wasn’t much. And then if I have to change them it’s going to cost me money, so I don’t know.”
Senators confident change will come
Senator Chisholm said while the committee would speak to the carriers after all public hearings had concluded, he was confident the inquiry would make a change.
“I’m confident that you will see concrete proposals for this committee that local residents will be able to identify with and see that their effort in turning up and giving evidence was worthwhile,” Senator Chisholm said.
The Senate inquiry into flight services is holding a public hearing in Cloncurry today. (ABC News: Harriet Tatham)
Regional air services inquiry co-chair Senator Barry O’Sullivan said he was likewise optimistic and proposals had already become obvious, such as investigating resident fares and working out a system to relieve struggling remote councils.
“It remains a mystery to everybody as to how many fares there are and how they’re accessed, so unravelling that mystery is one of the first things,” he said.
“There was some evidence given about some of our rural councils are having to spend a third or a quarter of their rates base to maintain an airstrip.
“Can you imagine going to the good people of Sydney or Melbourne and saying, ‘we’re going to pump your rates up because you’ve got the pay for the airport here?’ We’d have a civil unrest.
“They’re the sorts of things that should be able to be fixed pretty readily.”
Senator O’Sullivan said aside from specific changes, it was clear the bush needed more money.
“We spent billions of dollars in this country every year subsidising public transport in the cities, so I think we may just have to dig a bit deeper to support those people I what I can the provinces.”
The Senate committee is due to report back to Federal Parliament in September.