Little things can become big things when relationships go south.
Four days after Regional Express (Rex) flew its final flight from Taree Airport on January 26, national airports manager David Brooksby fired off an email to MidCoast Council’s acting general manager Steve Embry.
It was about a three-phase powerpoint on the aircraft apron, a little thing, with a price tag of about $1000, and Mr Brooksby wanted to know if council had “actively installed the three-phase provisions for use by the new airline serving Taree Airport”.
The new airline, Fly Pelican, accessed the powerpoint on its first day of operation at Taree Airport on January 28. Its ability to access power on the aircraft apron is something Rex says it had sought from MidCoast Council, and that during the airport upgrade, “had Rex been consulted at any stage, the sole request would have been for a three-phase outlet on the aircraft apron”.
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Mr Brooksby dates Rex’s original request to council as December 2016, says the company intended to invest in a ground power unit and asserts access to a three-phase powerpoint on the aircraft apron was a standard requirement.
He says council’s response to Rex was to express the “hope that you can find this amount within your budget to support activities carried out by Rex staff”.
Mr Brooksby acted to make the email public, sent a copy to the Manning River Times and the NSW government – and by doing so, provided Taree Airport manager, and council’s manager of community spaces, recreation and trades, Dan Aldridge with the opportunity to respond to the question and speak to council’s relationship with Rex.
The little thing is now a big thing.
Mr Aldridge says MidCoast Council did recently act to install three-phase provisions on the aircraft apron when power failed to the illuminated wind direction indicator.
“While we were running power out to that area we took the opportunity to do it,” Mr Aldridge said.
He is quick to add that he’s never met Mr Brooksby, rejects outright the claim that council did not consult with Rex, and describes the dynamic with Rex as a “dictatorship relationship”.
“An absolute farce” is the response to Mr Brooksby’s claim there was “no consultation with Rex as the sole Regional Passenger Transport (RPT) operator at Taree Airport”.
“We had extensive consultation with Rex, with their network strategy manager Warwick Lodge and that consultation was held over three telephone conferences,” Mr Aldridge said.
He adds that council’s former general manager Glenn Handford took part in one conference and senior staff participated in the additional two.
“We specifically asked them (Rex) about what program of works did they want in the last grant,” Mr Aldridge said.
“The last grant we finished off was an upgrade to the Regular Passenger Transport apron and it allowed them to park their planes overnight, which otherwise they could not do, and we gave them two spaces to do that.
.... so for them to come and say we haven't consulted with them, and didn't ask what they wanted, is an absolute farce.Taree Airport manager, Dan Aldridge.
“We provided air-conditioning into the airport terminal, we provided solar to the airport terminal, we provided an instrument called a Precision Approach Path Indicator which is extensively used by Rex to land in adverse weather conditions.
“So we consulted with them and we delivered them projects at their wish, so for them to come and say we haven't consulted with them, and didn't ask what they wanted, is an absolute farce.
“If they can honestly say that they left Taree Airport because of a $1000 powerpoint ...”
Mr Aldridge says “council was held under threat for numerous years by Rex”.
“Any time passenger numbers dropped, or there was an increase in costs, we always got held with the threat of a reduction of services or a removal of services,” he said.
“It got to the stage where Rex, without consultation with us, decided to not go direct to Sydney, and all flights were going through Newcastle.
“It had a direct negative impact on the numbers of passengers catching the plane, which affected Rex's numbers in their own right, but as a bigger picture item, it impacted on the economic viability of our area and the business community who definitely rely on that business service flight.
We've sat quietly because we've been able to do very little because the route is regulated and they had all the aces up their sleeve.Taree Airport manager, Dan Aldridge
“So that went south. We've sat quietly because we've been able to do very little because the route is regulated and they had all the aces up their sleeve.”
Mr Aldridge reveals Taree Airport operates at roughly $300,000 in the red every year.
“We are trying to get the airport to balance - it’s no different to a swimming pool, it's a community service, and there are services that council is expected to deliver, and running an airport for our business community and residents and visitors to the area is one of them.”
He says council sought to try to improve the financial position of the airport as improvements were made but “we were held to ransom with our fees.”
“We held our fees static for three years under threat that if we increase our fees that (Rex) will leave or review their services,” he said.
“Every time we wanted to make any improvement on that site, and it meant maybe increasing a charge, they would review their services which would mean a reduction of services or removal of services. Every time that was the threat.”
The catalyst for change came when council received advice from the NSW government that the route was to be deregulated.
Mr Aldridge seized the opportunity to try to find a new airline operator, to forge a new relationship with a company that would provide what the community wanted – direct flights to Sydney.
“I spoke to other airlines who we felt we (council) could partnership with as opposed to be dictated to, in terms of operations at the airport, and that's where we've come up with a new airline that's providing direct services for our community to Sydney,” he said.
“Fly Pelican has more competitive airfares, they are cheaper, the flights are direct and they will be regular. We think we’ve got a fantastic result.”