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Shire demands Busselton airport business plan

THE owner of the $5.5 million Busselton Regional Airport, the Shire of Busselton, has demanded a business plan for the airport’s future management by the end of November.

The airport issue is a contentious one in Busselton. The regular Perth-Busselton-Margaret River passenger air service closed after the State Government withdrew a transport subsidy earlier this year. Conse-quently, disgruntled ratepayers are footing the airport’s maintenance bill while they do not have a public air-service.

Last year the maintenance cost was $50,000 after airport taxes and fees. Since the closure of the public air-service, however, these have been substantially reduced. Industry sources say the maintenance cost could rise to 3 per cent of rates per household.

A debate is raging over whether the airport is a community service or a commercial entity. One industry source said (all) transport was a service and was always subsidised.

“The Shire had to borrow $48,000 for the year ending 2000 and $80,000 the previous year to subsidise the airport,” he said.

“The Shire is mindful the airport is a service and services do not always make a profit. The social benefits outweigh the cost.”

But critics argue the social benefit is not evenly distributed among Busselton’s population of 24,000, and the cost to maintain a $5 million airport is too high.

Even the amount of the subsidy is disputed. Announcing the subsidy withdrawal, Michelle Roberts, the Minister Assisting the Minister for Planning and Infrastructure, placed the annual subsidy at $175,000, a figure industry sources say is misrepresented, as the subsidy included contribution from other parties.

The Court Liberal Government chose Busselton, a Liberal strong-hold, to build the area’s 24-hectare regional airport with financial contribution from the Federal Government. In the early 1990s the Shire of Busselton had bought 120 hectares on the city fringe specific-ally for a new airport and buffer zone.

Since 1997, three airlines have attempted to make the ‘run’ profitable but had to rely on a government subsidy until passenger numbers increased.

Airport manager and operator of the Busselton Air Services, Peter Hales, said Skywest Airlines initially operated a Jetstream 18-seat aircraft between Perth and Busselton.

“Maroomba Airlines took over the run with a Kingair 10-seat aircraft that flew between north-west and south-west towns,” he said.

“The run was extended to Margaret River in 1999 and was reasonably successful. In August, Skippers Aviation took over the run until the subsidy was dropped nine months later.”

For the past six months, Busselton’s 105-member aero club has had almost exclusive use of the state-of-the-art airport. An aero flying school, a parachute club, tour operator Busselton Air Services, privately owned and charter aircraft and the Royal Flying Doctor share the facilities.

Busselton’s ratepayers are in agreement that the airport, designed by Westralia Airports Corporation to take a 737 jet, is at least 20 years ahead of its time. So why was it built?

“Cost” is the official response from a City of Busselton spokes-person.

“It is cheaper to build an airport to this standard now than in 20 years’ time. The South West needed a quality airport for access to tourism infrastructure and Margaret River is too hilly and too woody. Busselton is the natural location,” the spokes-person said.

However, it is common know-ledge within the aviation industry that, regardless of which Govern-ment, up to $8 million in grants for new regional airports and airport upgrades are based on a political reward system - to influence marginal electorates.

Unofficially, industry sources suggest the Busselton Regional Airport was built because the Court Government succumbed to pressure from the WA Tourism Commission and wealthy businessmen with South West resort and mining interests.

But the Busselton airport is not the only aviation controversy at the moment.

Earlier this year the Gallop Government decided to proceed with a feasibility study into a new $3 to $4 million airport, 50km down the road in the Labor stronghold of Bunbury.

City of Bunbury executive manager Tony Brun confirms the city is working with the Department of Transport and Infrastructure, looking at the aviation needs of the greater Bunbury area in a decade’s time. Population forecasts expect Bunbury to grow from its current population of 70,000 to 120,000 people by 2010.

When she announced the withdrawal of the Busselton-Margaret River air-service subsidy, Mrs Roberts called Busselton’s airport a white elephant, a title many believe it does not deserve. Industry sources say passenger numbers were increasing as people were becoming more familiar with the service, and that the subsidy was withdrawn too soon.

The State Government has included both airports in this year’s Regional Airport Development grants. Busselton received $2500 for an inter pilot communication frequency and Bunbury received $13,485 for fencing to stop animals wandering onto the airstrip.

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