In a two-part series, Geoffrey Thomas looks at the 60-year history of Virgin Australia Regional Airlines.
THE pedigree of Skywest Airlines can be traced back to the many aviation pioneers who battled unforgiving terrain, intense heat and isolation to forge links with distant towns.
That spirit continues to this day at Virgin Australia Regional Airlines, as Skywest is now called, which was the first to introduce the 100-seat Fokker 100 and 180-seat Airbus A320 jets into Western Australia.
Skywest, and then VARA, have been the backbone of regular passenger transport and fly-in, fly-out charter work for the past 30 years.
It is accepted that the start of the airline was the formation of Norwest Air Taxis Pty Ltd in late 1963, also known as Carnarvon Air Taxis, which became the major player Trans West Airlines.
However, other airlines were merged to form Skywest, now VARA. The concepts behind each of these airlines differed: some were flying schools, some were cattle musterers, one was formed to fulfil the need to fly supplies to a remote hotel, while one had a racing car pedigree.
Although their motives may have been different, all had the same ingredients: an unwavering passion and a neversay-die spirit to give it a go in an unforgiving and isolated part of the world.
Add to the mix the desire for the state’s then largest airline – MacRoberston Miller Airlines – to retire its DC-3s that connected the state’s remote towns in the 1960s, together with the emergence of the resources industry, and you had the catalyst for an airline that would eventually replace MacRoberston Miller and play a leading role in WA’s aviation landscape.
Skywest (now VARA) would operate 480 aircraft over 60 years and be the sum of the merger of 20-plus airlines and entities. It is able to claim it has served virtually every major town in WA over its history.
In 1980, up-and-coming aviation executive Bill Meeke was made managing director of Trans-West Airlines (TWA). He immediately set about organising a merger with the other major regional airline, Civil Flying Services, owned by Ric Stowe.
“The rapid growth of Skywest into a major aviation force involved a non-stop list of major projects,” Mr Meeke said.
“This included winning the right to compete with Airlines of Western Australia [an Ansett subsidiary] on WA’s internal routes, the purchase of East-West Airlines, a High Court challenge to the two airline policy (which was instrumental in the Hawke government’s decision to deregulate the Australian airline industry), the purchase of four Fokker F28-4000 jets, and the progressive expansion of Skywest’s charter division throughout Australia and Papua New Guinea, including that of becoming the sole provider of aerial services for coastal surveillance.”
Mr Meeke said he was privileged to lead a remarkable team of aviation professionals who carried much of the load during this journey.
“They are too many to mention here, but it would be remiss of me not to identify Hugh Davin, Bob Mason, Bruce Burns, Wally Slaven, Allan Rose and Ian Drennan,” he said.
In 1986, the Skywest Group was sold off to the Perron Group, which two weeks later sold the airline to TNT and News Limited (owners of Ansett Airlines). Mr Meeke was retained as CEO reporting to Sir Peter Abeles but retired in 1994 as he saw no future for the airline under Ansett.
After the demise of Ansett in 2001, Mr Meeke led a successful rescue of Skywest from the ashes of Ansett but hit turbulence when investors didn’t share his vision of expansion into jets to tap the burgeoning FIFO market.
Skywest struggled to gain traction over the next few years until it lured back one of its favourite sons, Hugh Davin, who had spent 23 years with the airline through the 1970s, ’80s and early ’90s.
In 1994, Mr Davin set up National Jet Systems in WA with just two 75-seat BAe 146 jets. During the next 12 years, the fleet grew to 18 jets based in WA, not to mention the fleet of aircraft engaged in the Coastwatch contract Mr Davin secured in 1995.
Interestingly, Mr Davin was brought back on board at Skywest with a brief to dispose of one of the 100-seat Fokker 100s.
With Mr Davin in the cockpit, mining contracts flowed. Within a few months, the airline announced it needed two more Fokker 50s and an additional three Fokker 100s.
One of Skywest’s marketing pluses at the time was its economy class, which offered 86 centimetres of legroom. The airline engaged 2.18-metre-tall Australian basketball legend Luc Longley to endorse it with an image that said it all.
Continuing the high-end theme, the airline added premium beers by popular boutique WA brewery Little Creatures Brewing to its in-flight fare, along with Dome coffee, Cookie Barrel cookies and Ferngrove Wines.
By 2009, Skywest announced the acquisition of its first 180-seat Airbus A320; with this addition, the airline’s seat capacity had quadrupled in three years.
Since early 2007 when Mr Davin took over, the airline had acquired six Fokker 100s and three 46-seat Fokker 50s, giving it a total of 18 aircraft.
The A320 acquisition would bring a new dimension to the airline’s capabilities, enabling it to contemplate operating much longer nonstop flights.
Mr Davin said Skywest’s introduction of the 180-seat Airbus A320 in 2010 set the course for the organisation’s future strategy.
“The company was now presenting in the marketplace as a force to be reckoned with, as it was operating a mainline high-capacity jet on an established airline network and a growing resources sector business portfolio,” he said.
In January 2011, Skywest struck a wide-ranging 10-year deal with the Virgin Blue Group to service regional Australia, with the WA airline operating 18 Virgin Blue-branded ATR 72 turboprops to a number of existing and new destinations.
The deal also involved an expansion of existing codeshare arrangements, with Virgin Blue and Skywest customers able to earn and burn frequent flyer points on each other’s networks.
When the deal was announced, then Virgin CEO and managing director John Borghetti said the arrangement was beneficial to both carriers.
“By partnering with the pre-eminent regional airline in Australia, Virgin Blue is investing in building a substantial network in regional Australia and strengthening its domestic network This alliance will significantly benefit regional Australia as well as being a win-win for Skywest and Virgin Blue,” he said.
At the same time, the FIFO side of the business was moving from strength to strength, with two more Fokker 100s and another A320 to join the fleet in 2011, lifting the fleet strength to 11 F100s and two A320s.
But that was just the start, with Mr Davin suggesting at the time a 50 per cent increase in FIFO business was possible within five years.
There were also challenges, however, with many more resources companies upgrading their runways to A320/737NG capability, opening up more opportunities for Qantas and even Skywest’s then alliance partner, Virgin, to tap their vast 737 capabilities. What was needed was a closer relationship with Virgin.