From the outback to the outskirts of major cities, there are now hundreds of airports that are owned and operated by local governments, and they want more money to help them fly.
Local ratepayers may not realise they’re the ones keeping the airports afloat — and despite their financial support, they often run at a loss.
One example is the airstrip with a 70s brick block terminal on the edge of Ballarat, a regional Victorian city with a population of about 100,000 people.
This airport doesn’t take commercial passenger flights. But the local council, which runs and owns it, says the region would be worse off without it.
“We do see it as a really valuable asset to our community,” Mayor Des Hudson says.
“It’s certainly not part of the three Rs that most people think local government is about: roads, rates and rubbish.”
When the ABC visited, several medical transfer planes were landing on the tarmac.
One of the businesses that works out of a hangar, Field Air, also has small aircraft that fight bushfires and help farms with dropping fertiliser.
Field Air pays rent to the council as do several other residents, including a flight school.
But Ballarat airport is still running at a loss, with local residents paying about $200,000 annually to keep it operating, or $2 each a year.
“The commercial arrangement just isn’t there,” Cr Hudson says.
‘Too crucial to fail’
A new report by an advocacy group for regional local governments found there are 200 regional airports owned and operated by councils nationally.
An estimated 60 per cent — or 120 airports — operate at a loss, Regional Capitals Australia (RCA) found, and many are dealing with ageing and insufficient infrastructure.
As well as airports near regional cities like Ballarat, councils are running airports in the outback.
In the wet season, some remote communities in the north of Australia would be totally cut off without their airports.
“Regional airports are too crucial to fail,” RCA’s chair and the mayor of Albury, Kylie King, says.
Albury, a town on the edge of the New South Wales-Victorian border, also has a council-owned airport that operates with ratepayer subsidisation.
Its big expenses include security, tarmac maintenance and lighting. Many of these overheads are legal requirements for airports.
“We really need the federal government to consider some recurrent funding, something to help us with some of these operational costs,” Cr King says.
“Unfortunately, local councils have to make difficult decisions, if they’re going to support and prop up these regional airports.”
Funding for a secure future
Along with local ratepayers, the federal government is also contributing funding to support regional airports.
Albury City Council, for instance, just received $2.6 million from the Commonwealth’s Regional Remote Aviation fund to convert the lights around its airport to LED.
Ballarat City Council also just got $5 million from the same fund to extend its runway.
The RCA wants the fund boosted from $100 million every four years to $500 million, and is lobbying for the increased support as the federal government consults more broadly on the aviation industry.
“We’re at that crucial point,” Cr King says.
Greg White, who is the director of the University of the Sunshine Coast’s Airport Pavement Research program, believes regional airports do have needs greater than the current funding pool.
But interestingly, he says the cash that is already being handed out isn’t always going where it is most needed.
“Some airports that are profitable are just as entitled to grants as the airports that are not profitable,” he says, adding that the selection criteria for these grants can “defy logic”.
Ballarat City Council matched its recent federal funding with $5 million of its own.
Parks, libraries and airports
Ballarat airport’s longer runway is still under construction, and it could be a while coming, as the council deals with relocating a state-owned road that runs right through its extended tarmac.
Cr Hudson says they’d like another $20 to $30 million in federal funding to put in a parking area or “apron” for larger planes, which could help draw commercial airlines to the airport.
Currently, Ballarat residents drive 115 kilometres to Melbourne to fly out of its international airport. The nearby regional city of Bendigo, which is a similar size to Ballarat, also has a small airport that has flights to Sydney on Qantas.
“Why can’t Ballarat be a destination where people can take off from Ballarat and fly to Sydney for business on a daily basis?” Cr Hudson asks.
He says if they had the ability to take commercial flights, they’d be able to charge planes to land or park at the airport, and ideally commercialise the facility.
“It’s a bit chicken or egg isn’t it?” he says.
“In terms of job opportunities and business expansion, we’ll have a lot more freight passenger carrying capabilities, as well as emergency services here, which will really help the community.
“We are not unique. We are just one of many towns that has a regional airport.
“They are dotted all around Australia, and all could play a much greater role.”
Airport expert Dr White says it is unlikely many regional council-owned airports will ever become profitable, and that local government budgets are going towards running “vital” facilities.
“Parks and libraries don’t make a profit, and neither do many of these airports,” he says.
“If the Council supports the park and the library, why should it not support the airport?”
In a statement, the federal government says it “recognises the important role that aviation plays [in] regional and remote communities” and it is currently consulting broadly through its Aviation White Paper.