Bega Valley locals have long been hoping to see some competition between airlines flying into Merimbula airport, to push down fares and offer more people affordable regional travel options.
On Friday, we got our wish as Qantas announced it would be servicing Sydney-Merimbula with four weekly flights from December but, in a surprise move, Regional Express, which has flying the route exclusively for years, announced it would abandon the service.
A spokesperson for REX confirmed that flights on the Sydney-Merimbula route would cease after 28 March 2021, but that the airline will continue its Sydney-Moruya flight schedule for now.
A statement from Bega Valley Shire Council’s general manager Leanne Barnes on Friday acknowledged the airline’s decision.
“Regional Express has made a long commitment to the Bega Valley and Council welcomes the QantasLink service to Merimbula airport,” she said.
“This is a commercial decision for each airline and Council is the provider of airport infrastructure that can be utilised by local and national businesses.
“We trust both airlines will operate, and provide services and choice to the local community, building on and supporting local tourism seeking recovery after a particularly difficult year.”
Eurobodalla Council’s General Manager Dr Catherine Dale said Rex was considering its options with regards to continuing services to Moruya airport.
The airline used the Merimbula and Moruya routes together to make flights faster and more affordable, so the loss of the Merimbula connection may change future flights for Moruya.
“We’ve spoken with Rex this afternoon and that conversation will continue in the coming days as they work through how this new situation might impact Moruya flights,” Dr Dale said on Friday.
“We have a very positive partnership with the airline that resulted in increased passenger capacity and lower fares for the Moruya route.”
COVID-19 restrictions from March onwards have impacted airlines such as Regional Express heavily, with Ms Dale reporting that the Eurobodalla Council’s ownership of Moruya Airport had been profitable pre-COVID.
“The partnership struck between the Council and Regional Express in 2015 had seen passenger numbers grow by 20 per cent until COVID-19 travel restrictions hit in March,” she said.
“Nineteen flights per week are now down to three.”
Before REX announced it would pull out of the Merimbula route, Qantas spruiked the addition of four flights per week with a 50-seat Q300 turboprop aircraft as bringing “much-needed” competition to the market in time for summer tourism.
A statement from Qantas said that the airline will add flights to the route if there is strong demand.
The dramatic change to flight schedules shows us how far from pre-COVID-19 normal we are.
“Pre-COVID, Rex was offering daily return flights that allowed residents, business travellers and medical professionals to get to and from Sydney in a day,” Dr Dale said.
“We look forward to that essential service continuing as we establish the new normal.”
Qantas flights on the Merimbula-Sydney route are available to book from 12 October. Flights commence on 18 December.