Whitsunday Regional Councillors have voted unanimously on a proposal to deliver international charter flights to the Whitsundays in 2016.
The proposal, for stages one and two of a three-stage process, has been pitched by AVMIN, a specialist air charter firm majority owned by the Flight Centre group.
AVMIN managing director Paul O’Brien said stage one was about getting the airport compliant in terms of regulations for international flights, while stage two was about finding suitable carriers.
Moving forward, he said stage three would entail using Flight Centre’s global distribution network to ensure the flights were full.
“There’ll be work going into upgrading the airport so international services can be operational (and) from there it’ll be easy to get charter flights in – but if there’s nobody on them it’s not sustainable – so with Flight Centre’s global reach, that will assist us,” he said.
Mr O’Brien said the first destination connecting the Whitsundays to the wider world was likely to be New Zealand.
“And obviously there’s a growing market for Asia,” he said.
“It isn’t all about casinos – seeing the reef and seeing the Whitsundays is something very exciting that the Whitsundays, Proserpine and Airlie Beach can deliver.”
While Mr O’Brien remained reasonably “tight-lipped” about the potential carriers, preferring to “hold off until we get all our ducks in a row”, he did say Cathay Pacific was in the mix, along with “a number of others”.
He said the current plan was to see New Zealand services established by mid-2016, with Asian connectivity in the pipeline after that.
“We would have liked to have it for Chinese New Year, but that’s not realistic,” he said.
Council’s CEO Scott Waters said AVMIN were a recognised leader in delivering charter services and logistics in Queensland.
“(And) with the support of Flight Centre, AVMIN and the region’s tourism industry, we will work towards delivering international services, via an international charter program in 2016,” he said.
Mr Waters said it should be noted that after stages one and two had been finalised, Council would be briefed prior to receiving any further recommendations or a decision being made.
He also stressed this was all completely separate to the ongoing expression of interest process whereby Council is seeking to partner with the private sector in a joint venture to develop and grow the airport.
Mr Waters added two Australian-based companies had been short-listed in this regard, with Council now in negotiations for binding bids.
“This process will be completed in the New Year with Council reviewing the bids,” he said.
“AVMIN and Flight Centre are not parties to this process,” he said.
Mr O’Brien said it was “full steam ahead” with a 12-week schedule for stages one and two and negotiations happening in Canberra this week.
Federal MP George Christensen has already said he will lobby the government to provide essential customs and immigration services, initially at no charge, to help get the international services started.
“The Liberal National Government has been providing free customs and immigration services to the Townsville airport since it began international flights to Bali earlier this year,” he said.
“I have already spoken with the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, seeking similar arrangements for international airport operations at both Mackay and the Whitsundays.”