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Airport refit grounds Broome

THE closure of Broome International Airport for runway repairs this week and next is expected to boost regional tourism from next year, but for many it represents ‘second best’ option.

The renovated runways will be able to accommodate larger aircraft that could fly in direct from international ports and eastern Australian capital cities, bringing in higher earners attracted by shorter travelling times.

But until at least next Friday afternoon (November 22), only light aircraft can take off or land in Broome.

Even these, however, know the makeshift strip across from the airport will not hold up under heavy rain.

And those arriving in larger craft – such as ones operated by Qantas-Link, Air North, Skippers Aviation and NorthWest Regional Airlines, are doing so in Derby, at Curtin Air Base, two hours away by bus.

The airport’s private owners thought these repairs would never need to be done.

In 1991 they had an agreement with the Shire of Broome for a relocation that would offer the opportunity to cater for the larger craft. A government taskforce was set up, Broome International Airport group chief executive officer Kim Maisey said, and millions of dollars spent on engineering, environmental and meteorological assessments.

In February this year, Federal Government environmental approval came through for a site 13 kilometres north of Broome.

However, Native Title issues remained unsolved between the Kimberley Land Council and the WA Government.

When the State Government decided against pursuing compulsory acquisition in court, the airport’s owners – the BIA group – made a decision to go ahead with the major upgrade, Mr Maisey said.

Major works had been put off for years, he said.

But with repairs late last year, extensions from July this year, and now strengthening work over 13,500 square metres of runway – work totalling $3 million – the BIA group has told the shire and the Government it does not intend to relocate for at least another 10 years.

The shutdown was scheduled for the quieter tourist season, immediately prior to the wet season, to minimise the effects on all operators using the airport.

However, Broome Aviation marketing coordinator Bill Hutton said it came at a busy time for the small craft operator, when the company did lots of regional corporate, government, Indigenous and service- provider charter pick-ups.

The company stood to lose up to $120,000 over the 12-day shutdown, so initially sourced another airstrip out of town, and a grader to get it up to standard.

It was not until the company approached the airport’s owners to pick up the tab for the grader – on behalf of itself and other lighter aircraft operators – that the BIA group decided to provide an alternative strip at no cost, Mr Hutton said.

But while there is some tension and short-term inconvenience, the smaller operators – including Broome Aviation and King Leopold Air – support the renovations.

The latest work, by Pavement Technologies Limited, will effectively upgrade the airport to accommodate craft such as the Boeing 737-800 series and fully loaded Boeing 767s.

“The long-term benefits – bringing in more visitors – will be good for Broome,” King Leopold Air spokes-person Phil Telfer said.

Mr Maisey said the level of investment and commitment to the airport was indicative of Broome’s desirability, both locally and internationally.

“We know a lot of Broome visitors come from Sydney and Melbourne, and Qantas has given positive indication to bring in direct flights from perhaps May 2003,” he said.

“This would provide Virgin Blue with an option it did not previously have.”

For the week ending October 20, Broome International Airport supported 100 regular passenger transport flights – flights not including smaller aircraft and charters.

BIA group is also planning an upgrade of passenger screening and departure area facilities, allowing passengers to be screened straight from check-in, rather than immediately before boarding.

The State Government and Shire of Broome are continuing land-use discussions with the Kimberley Land Council under the Broome Frame-work Agreement, Mr Maisey told WA Business News.

Qantas declined to talk of its current or future Broome services, other than to confirm some rescheduling during the upgrade.

No representatives of Virgin Blue were available for comment at the time WA Business News went to press.

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