KATHERINE’S embattled airport will welcome a commercial flight for the first time in more than a decade on October 19.
Transport Minister Peter Chandler announced this morning that the Northern Territory government had signed an air services agreement with regional operator Airnorth that will link Katherine with Darwin, Tennant Creek and Alice Springs during a two-year trial.
The government flagged the trial in August 2014 in a bid to “test the market” and reintroduce a regular passenger transport service to provide a road alternative to access towns on the Stuart Highway.
Airnorth will operate the service using an Embraer E120 aircraft on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.
Mr Chandler said the long-awaited “milk run” represented the final piece of the puzzle to connect the NT.
“Look, I am excited, because it connects the Territory,” he told the Katherine Times after he made the announcement on September 10.
“I know everyone talks about the Stuart Highway and driving … and I really think [an RPT service] is the final bolt-on that we need.
“You’ve got planes that fly over all these places but to actually connect the towns is the icing on the cake.”
He added that the government had budgeted for a full two-year trial, irrespective of its success, but said he believed daily commercial flights could be landing in Katherine well before it concluded.
“We’ve already budgeted for it, so the two years is a commitment ,” he said.
“It won’t take more than two years to establish itself as a rock-solid service and it’s possible it could end up running five days a week.
“I want the government to support it by making sure their own public servants use it wherever possible.”
Member for Katherine Willem Westra van Holthe said the trial would boost economic opportunities for the region, adding that the long-term future of the RPT service would hinge on how well it was supported by the community.
You’ve got planes that fly over all these places but to actually connect the towns is the icing on the cake.
“The Katherine community has been crying out for this route for some time,” he said.
“This is the first regular air service for Katherine and Tennant Creek since 2004, when the previous service became commercially unviable.
“I’d encourage residents and business owners to support the service, cementing its place in the region for years to come.”
Flights have ‘game changer’ potential for tourism
The announcement has been welcomed by Katherine’s tourism sector.
Nitmiluk Tours general manager Tony Clementson said he believed the RPT service could be a “game changer” that had the potential to put the region on the doorstep of tourists who did not have the time to undertake a traditional driving holiday, especially during the wet season.
“I think it’s great news,” he said.
“I think it opens up the region to a whole new audience.
“It will make a big difference to people who are time poor, or who are holidaying in the Top End and aren’t driving.”
Future of airport still in the air
Despite the celebration surrounding the announcement, the future of Katherine Airport still hangs in the balance as Katherine Town Council waits to make a decision on whether or not it will cease operation of the facility, which it described last year as being in a “rather dilapidated condition”.
Prior to a backflip at its June 24, 2014 ordinary meeting, the council had voted to withdraw immediately from running the embattled facility, described by the NT government as having “vital importance” to both Katherine and adjacent communities.
While the council has undertaken considerable consultation with other stakeholders over the past 14 months, including the Department of Defence and Department of Transport, it is yet to finalise its plan for the future of the facility.