Qantas bids to continue vital Lord Howe Island service
At Lord Howe Island the combination of a short airstrip, a shifting sand dune, and a brilliant airliner no longer in production poses difficult questions for one of the most beautiful places on Earth.
Most of the 31,569 passengers who passed through the tiny terminal in 2010-2011 (latest BITRE figures) did so while boarding or leaving an early model Qantaslink Dash 8-200, the high wing low capacity prop-jet that proved the must durable and reliable replacement for the Fokker Friendships that had brought the regional services of Australia out of the DC-3 age from the late ’50s until well into the ’80s.
The early Dash 8 -200 is the 36 seat version the makes normal regional airline services to Lord Howe Island work, while these days most Dash 8 flyers are likely to be on board the latest and very fast version, the -400 or Q400, which hasn’t enough room for the 72 passengers that can be crammed into it, but that’s another story.
Lord Howe Island’s 886 metres (2907 feet) long strip is no place for Q400s, and even for Q200s operating mostly to and from Sydney, the calculations of total payload including individual weights, checked and cabin luggage, parcel consignments, and diversionary fuel are given meticulous attention.
But the Q200s are no longer being built, and as planes, even very good planes, age and accumulate pressurisation cycles and all of the other stresses on their aluminium airframes, they become increasingly costly to maintain as safe and reliable.
Which means that the current round of bidding for the NSW Government tender for Lord Howe Island air services from March 2013 to March 2018 may be one of the last that Qantas will contest.
There is no obvious practicable replacement for the payload and range performance sweet spot of the Q200. Qantaslink could keep the turbo-prop safe for decades into the future as a low hours, high maintenance aircraft, but the tender process would have to be reversed into one in which the state or federal government offered sufficient funds to support the investment.
In a market driven air transport world, Lord Howe Island is a special case, just as it is a place very special for its environmental assets, and the sublime joys of being there, whether as lovers, naturalists, or to fish or dive.
There is also a risk that the tender process might see the service revert to smaller lighter aircraft, departing, say, Port Macquarie or Coffs Harbour, to reduce the over water risks, but adding time and discomfort and reawakening the disturbing memories of past tragedy involving small operators and a total failure of aviation regulatory oversight.
Which is what Dick Smith drew attention to in a letter in the current edition of the island’s news bulletin, the Lord Howe Island Signal.
However the Signal also leads with this classic reminder of the realities of the short strip operations with a story about how the Blinkey Dune, the very much active or alive sand dune at the eastern end of the runway, is to be reduced in height yet again to avoid compromising the factors that constrain the Q200 Qantaslink operations.
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