COMMENT: Merimbula airport stoush at new heights (and lows)

Ill feeling is right.

That’s the impression one gets while reading through the council’s “unreserved apology” to our shire’s airline services and the community who rely on them for services into and out of Merimbula.

Don’t get us wrong, we completely understand why the council felt the need to apologise given the importance of tourism and the financial importance of the airport. But it’s sickening that it did so, and just a little gag-worthy as to how it did.

There’s no doubt Rex Airlines is a vital service to our region and any jeopardising of that relationship could have significant negative flow-on effects for the Valley. 

However, we’re also locked into this situation by its virtual monopoly on the sector.

Despite deregulation of the route, Free Spirit Airlines is the only alternative carrier currently making a go of it here – and being a lot more accommodating with respect to a proposed increase in the passenger fee. 

Perhaps that’s something to do with Merimbula’s landing fee being comparatively lower than what Free Spirit had to pay elsewhere. Or that the 50 cent “jump” is the first such increase in 15 years of Rex operation into Merimbula.

But when Rex threatens to actively reduce services to Merimbula after feeling “insulted” by the council leadership, is it any wonder the council works to smooth the waters by apologising.

At the core of this back-and-forth is a reported lack of communication and consultation by the council over the proposed fee increase with the relevant airlines.

Rex even claims it was given only 24 hours to make a submission on the draft budget document before it went before a council meeting – and that notice first came through the pages of this paper.

That claim appears borne out by the council’s apology with Mayor Kristy McBain saying “we were aware of the error and mistakenly aimed to rectify the issue through a council meeting process, but acknowledge that approach was wrong and we should have communicated the oversight sooner to avoid unnecessary angst”. 

The whole episode has been poorly handled – that it fell to the Mayor to apologise for what could only have been an oversight by staff not councillors is an insult in itself.

While the community reacted, as expected, to Rex’s threats by calling it “grandstanding”, “brow-beating” and “petulant”, that council immediately fell to such a fawning apology leaves a sour taste all round.