OPINION: Regional airfares cap makes a big difference to the lives of those living in rural and remote areas

Headshot of Cally Dupe
Cally DupeCountryman
An Air North flight comes in to land on the Kununurra Airport runway.
Peter de Kruijff
Camera IconAn Air North flight comes in to land on the Kununurra Airport runway. Peter de Kruijff Credit: Peter de Kruijff/Peter de Kruijff

It should not be underestimated what a tangible difference the State Government’s new caps on regional airfares will make to the lives of those living in rural and remote areas.

From July 1, airfares to and from destinations including Albany, Monkey Mia, Broome and Exmouth will be capped at $199 one-way for flights up to 1000km and $299 one-way for longer travel booked as a return ticket.

The two-tiered system will cost the State Government $19.8 million in subsidies.

It is money well spent.

I grew up in Kununurra and the cost of airfares was an issue which greatly affected my family’s ability to travel outside the Kimberley region, during both childhood and teenage years as a boarding school student in Perth.

Being away for so many weeks at a time as a teenager was incredibly hard: there were no weekend trips home.

My parents could not afford to visit me regularly or to fund my return outside of the school holidays.

We had spent decades thinking that $500 was a good deal to pay to fly from Perth to Kununurra, or — like so many others — being forced to spend $1200 one way in the case of a family emergency.

It was not until I was a working adult and my dad became ill that this issue was really hammered home.

In February 2016, he was diagnosed with stomach cancer.

At the time, I was a 26-year-old journalist working at a newspaper in Kununurra.

The Kimberley is amazing, but it is one of the most expensive places to live in WA, with our rent at the time an exorbitant $550 per week, petrol nudging $2/L and the cost of a toothbrush hovering around $6.

I’d been back in my home town and working as a reporter for four years after university in Perth.

My Dad was living in Busselton after my parents’ separation and my Mum still lived in Kununurra.

When we found out his diagnosis, my instant thought was to jump on a plane and fly the 3000km to see him.

The reality was much different.

Countryman editor Cally Dupe.
Camera IconCountryman editor Cally Dupe. Credit: Shannon Verhagen/Countryman

Between March and May, I checked the price of flights almost daily — and battled to find anything below $750 return that would allow me to travel to Perth before his initially-planned surgery in August.

The one way cost rose to $1200 at some points.

Exasperated, I penned a letter to my employer to explain my situation and requested I be allowed to work from Perth for four months while he underwent chemotherapy and radiation.

We hoped he might OK after that.

I was incredibly fortunate they were so supportive of my situation and said a resounding yes.

I will forever be thankful that my line manager — The West’s now readers editor Laura Newell — provided so much support and went in to bat for me to do so.

Without her, I would have faced a horrible choice of losing either the job I loved or precious time with my Dad.

During my initial four month stint in Perth, I did not return to Kununurra to visit my partner, mother, or friends because the cost of flights was simply too high.

At the end of what was supposed to be a temporary period in Perth, a job came up in the city — with the same employer — and I took it.

After four months at opposite ends of WA, my partner moved to Perth and we started our new life together after initially toying with the idea of staying in Kununurra long term.

Like so many others, we felt we had no choice but to move elsewhere due to the astronomical the cost of living.

We just knew there was just no way I would be able to afford to travel from Kununurra to Perth to visit my dad — whose diagnosis had worsened to be terminal — on a regular basis.

It was not until I was a working adult and my dad became ill that this issue was really hammered home.

Cally Dupe

The mental health implications of living in a place so physically far removed from friends and family, and so wildly cost-prohibitive to leave should also not be underestimated.

Imagine the worst kind of cabin fever — coupled with a very real dose of financial stress — you could have.

You could ask anyone living regionally and they would tell you there have been many special moments missed out on or tough choices that have had to be made due to the cost of airfares.

It is incredibly depressing to be unable to visit friends and family, or take a holiday, because of the cost.

Everyone living in country areas faces this choice, and many eventually choose to pack up and leave.

It was not uncommon to hear of a family paying $6000 to visit their loved ones on the east coast for Christmas after traveling from Kununurra or Broome.

When my dad was diagnosed, I faced the awful reality of either forking out thousands of dollars to visit him regularly, or moving to Perth.

I loved my time up north.

But I also found myself isolated from Perth friends and family, unable to attend some special events including birthdays and weddings.

A few months after I moved to Perth to spend time with my Dad, I paid $1100 for return flights to Kununurra so I could spend Christmas with my mum.

My presence was her present.

I commend the State Government for implementing this Australian first scheme, which builds on the State’s 2017 parliamentary inquiry into regional airfares.

I made a submission to this inquiry, and encouraged other Kununurra residents to do the same.

The new caps on regional airfares are great for tourism.

We should be able to explore our own state.

But let’s not forget that the biggest beneficiaries of this announcement are the people that live in and work so hard to keep these communities moving.

They deserve to visit family and friends or be tourists, as well.

Cally Dupe is the editor of the Countryman newspaper

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