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Outback mayor calls for action on sky-high airfares from Alice Springs

Christmas is traditionally a quiet time of year in Alice Springs. The heat, the flies, and the isolation often drives people south for the summer months. 

With domestic travel prices at a 10-year high, according to an ACCC report released earlier in September, Alice Springs residents are trying to plot the cheapest summer exit strategy.

Mark Carter and his family of four were, like many families, trying to ascertain the best way of getting to the Coffs Coast in New South Wales.

"We were looking at driving the entire way [to Port Macquarie, NSW], which adds up to about 75 hours of driving," he said.

"I was looking spending about 75 hours of the Christmas holidays, just sitting driving, staring at the tarmac, so that that wasn't appealing at all."

However, a direct flight had a hefty price tag of about $8,000 for the family.

"We looked at that and just thought, 'This is crazy money,'" Mr Carter said.

"This is what you would expect for international flights — we're just travelling within Australia."

Mr Carter said, by chance, they discovered cheaper flights from Yulara, 500 kilometres from Alice Springs.

"We've ended up taking this [option], it's not ideal.

"Nobody wants to start an interstate trip with a five-hour drive to reach an airport, especially when we've got a really good airport right here on our doorstep.

"But the prices are astronomical. So that's what you're forced to do."

Mr Carter said "astronomical" prices added to the feeling of isolation in the heart of Australia.

"Some parts of town are being smashed with crime right now … there's a lot to put up with," he said.

"People sometimes need to get away and refresh themselves and see family.

"When it feels like these big companies are price gouging then it does make you wonder about the long-term viability of the town," he said.

Mr Carter said many people would not choose to live in Alice Springs if the prices continued to hike.

"Who's going to be happy to live here long term if you are going to be facing a massive bill, a huge chunk of your yearly income on just having a break?" he said.

More affordable for families

Alice Springs Mayor Matt Paterson is calling on Qantas to reduce the price of airfares and consider bringing its low-cost carrier, Jetstar, to the outback town.

He said the liveability of the town was under threat when residents not only felt that air travel was too expensive, but were also in a position where they had to save up all year for a Christmas holiday.

"We're having conversations with Qantas and other airlines about how we can work together to make it more affordable for families," he said.

Mr Paterson said, in roundtable discussions with the national carrier, the airline was open to a similar resident fare, which is usually for flights between a regional centre and the capital city.

"I think that Adelaide, as a resident's fare, would certainly be well received.

"It's not something that's done elsewhere around the country … but where we are located geographically, it certainly makes sense that we can extend that to Adelaide as well."

Despite not having any assurances on an arrival time for a resident fare south of the town, Mr Paterson was confident.

"I do welcome the discussions with Qantas that they haven't ruled it out," he said.

"That they're taking the advice on board from Alice Springs about this can certainly alleviate some concerns."

Mr Paterson said residents were leaving "because it's so hard financially to fly out of here".

"If the airfares were cheaper and you could come in and out for a shorter amount of time, more people would live here, because they could get away more frequently," he said.

Commercial decision

NT's Minister for Tourism and Hospitality, Nicole Manison, said in a statement that  "airline pricing and scheduling is a commercial decision for each airline".

"Most airlines across the world are struggling to meet demand as they scale up operations post-COVID, with unprecedented issues such as particularly high fuel prices and continued staff shortages," she said.

"The impacts are not unique to the Northern Territory, but we appreciate the acute impact to Territorians, particularly for the residents of Central Australia."

Ms Manison said her government was in open communication with Qantas about improvements for Alice Springs residents.

"We recognise the importance for more than one airline to operate in order to maintain a competitive landscape and airline attraction is a priority agenda item," she said.

Qantas has a resident fare to Darwin while Virgin has a resident fare to Adelaide, both from Alice Springs.

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