A QantasLink service from Sydney touched down in Ballina Byron Gateway Airport yesterday to a water cannon welcome from two fire trucks. It was the first flight from the airline into Ballina for fifteen years.
Airport Manager Julie Stewart said that in the wake of COVID-19 the airport has become the busiest in the state after Sydney.
‘Next week we’ll see an increase in services,’ she said. ‘Each of the airlines are introducing new services almost daily to Ballina.
‘It’s showing strong demand for tourism and business travel.’
With numbers during the lockdown period as low as 15 passengers a week, the airport is now looking at 5-6000 passengers travelling weekly.
Ballina Mayor David Wright said, ‘This is fantastic. It doesn’t seem like 15 years since they were here before, but this is the start of a new age for the Ballina-Byron Gateway Airport.
‘You can see with the number of flights we’ve already got, up to 43 flights a week, and it will only improve.
‘So I think as long as the virus stays away, and we can deal with that, I can see nothing but a really good forward future for the airport.’
Echonetdaily asked what special precautions were being taken to protect Northern Rivers locals from COVID-19 with all the extra visitors.
Ms Stewart said, ‘The airport’s been working together with the airlines to ensure the safety of the passengers and the community, so we have a number of COVID-safe practices.
‘We’re working with the airlines and the public health authorities to ensure we’re meeting all the guidelines and requirements, of both state and federal health regulations,’ she said.
‘We’re implementing santisation, social distancing, temperature checks, which are above and beyond, and also ensuring the airlines are adhering to their COVID-safe plans as well.
‘We’ve increased the sanitation of staff, and the regime and protocols around that.’
Mayor Wright acknowledged the concerns of some locals.
He said, ‘I’ve certainly had a lot of people ring me, but Ballina Airport is owned by the people of the shire. Once you’ve got an airport, you work with agreements with the airlines, and airlines have got too much to lose.
‘I’ve been talking to them. The latest health guidelines for the airport are very comprehensive, and with the premier’s announcement this morning that people from certain suburbs won’t be welcomed into NSW, I think that takes people’s main worry out.’
Ms Stewart explained that Qantas and Jetstar are offering a ‘Flywell’ pack to customers, which contains hand sanitiser and wipes, as well as a mask.
She said the airport doesn’t have the authority to turn people back in case of temperature, ‘but we can alert airlines, and they have wellness practices to assess the situation, and can seek further medical advice about whether people can be carried.
‘The inbound passengers, if we detect a temperature there, they’re asked to visit a medical practitioner to seek further advice. We have no medical authority, and neither do we have any jurisdiction on giving orders to members of the public.’
Mayor Wright commented on the COVID-19 situation by saying, ‘There’s been Queenslanders here right through the whole period, many of them, and enjoying it, and I think that people here have been very sensitive.
‘Their social distancing is still working. Most places I go to, people are really doing that well, and I think visitors just have to fit in with what’s happening in the shire.
‘At the moment the Prime Minister wants all the borders open, and we are happy to comply with that,’ said Mayor Wright.
‘We can’t be everyone’s police, and we’ve got a lot of people in town that depend on tourism, so you’ve got to try and balance it. At the moment, if there was any risk I’m quite certain the authorities would stop the flights,’ he said.
Tomorrow there will be another special welcome as FlyPelican commences its new service flying directly into Ballina Byron Gateway Airport from Canberra.
Airport Manager Julie Stewart said the tickets for the first flight from Canberra had sold ‘very quickly’, and anticipates a lot of enthusiasm for the new route from both the people of Canberra and the Northern Rivers.
* In breaking news, Virgin Australia is also coming back to Ballina under new ownership, with flights resuming in early August.
Photos David Lowe