Meet the Australian regional airlines you’ve never heard of, who connect you to towns you’ve never been

Top End regional airline Airnorth's route map

When it comes to travelling around Australia, there are four major players connecting us to capital cities around the country, owned by two companies. Qantas are the classic choice, while Virgin Australia sit as the player who shook things up as Virgin Blue in 1999. The brand now sit as the country’s second largest airline, aided by the demise of Ansett in 2001. Then there’s Jetstar – Qantas’ discount carrier and Tiger – the Asian discount carrier now owned by Virgin. Chances are, you fly on one of these four airlines every time you travel domestically.

Chances, are, too, that you’ve heard of Rex – or Regional Express Airlines – who are Australia’s largest regional airline not operated by Qantas. Continuously adding to their route map over the last 14 years, they now travel to 58 destinations, with 52 aircraft in their fleet, each which hold between 33 and 36 passengers. Earlier this year, the airline that was established by ex-Ansett employees expanded into WA for the first time, showing the company aren’t planning to decrease their pressure on the market anytime soon. But while they may be the largest regional carrier, they are far from the only. And to meet some of these other companies, we need to travel to some of the lesser used airports around the country.

Little is it known that Melbourne has a third operating airport. With Tullamarine its main hub, and Avalon its cheaper Jetstar alternative, there’s also Essendon, which has the distinction of being the closest airport to the CBD and until 1970 was Melbourne’s main, international airport. It’s even where the Beatles touched down in 1964. But few know that the airport still operates commercial services by three regional carriers that help connect Melbourne to both regional locations and more popular destinations.

First there’s JetGo, who this week announced that they would be adding weekly services to Port Macquarie, connecting the coastal NSW town to Melbourne, and taking their total amount of destinations operated by their small fleet of three aircraft to nine. They also operate direct services from Essendon to Dubbo in NSW with ongoing service to Brisbane in Queensland. Elsewhere around the country they’ll take you to places like Tamworth and Albury in NSW and the Gold Coast, Townsville and Rockhampton in QLD. The remain an East Coast only carrier, but given their rapid growth since they moved into the commercial market in 2014, it’s clear they’re looking to add more options for regional travellers.

jetgo

Next, we have Free Spirit Airlines, a new player in the market who commenced their operations in April 2015. With a single aircraft in service, they currently connect Essendon with Burnie in Tasmania and Merimbula in NSW. Their Beechcraft 1900 aircraft seats 19 passengers. Already their introduction into the market has been met with what seem to be some underhanded tactics by the major players in the market, who according to reports may have fabricated numbers and even poached employees at the time of their launch. Whatever the truth may be, it’s proof that competition is fierce even for a carrier that only has one commercial aircraft to their name.

And finally for Essendon Airport there’s Sharp Airlines. First established in 1990, the company have been making major strides since 2008, adding major destinations like Adelaide to their route map, connecting the South East of Australia to places like King Island and Flinders Island in Tasmania. They operate 11 aircraft that seat up to 19 a piece, and will take you to nine destinations including Port Augusta in South Australia, Launceston in Tasmania and Warrnambool and Portland in Victoria. For those playing at home, Portland is 362 km west of Melbourne and is the oldest European settlement in the State.

Moving away from Essenton and into the top end, Airnorth are another of the major players in the regional space, boasting to carry 300,000 passengers a year to 24 destinations. They also seem to be the only non-Qantas owned domestic airline to be part of the Qantas Frequent Flyer program through a strategic alliance. The Darwin based airline, who primarily fly to destinations in the top end, are actually owned by a helicopter company, Bristow, who took over the carrier at the end of 2015.

airnorth

Unlike the other players in the regional market, they have four Embraer 170 aircraft, each which hold 76 passengers, on top of 8 other aircraft which hold either 16 or 30. In operation since 1978, they also the only regional carriers to operate outside Australian waters, taking passengers to Dili in East Timor. And though their aircraft are almost exclusively servicing regional destinations in the top end (in many cases being the only commercial carrier to service those airports, such as Australia’s third largest island, Groote Eylandt), they also connect Darwin to Townsville, Perth and Melbourne.

Fly Tiwi is a competitor out of Darwin, with the Hardy Aviation owned company servicing 7+ destinations in the region. Townsville, meanwhile, also offers West Wing Aviation, with 13 Torres Straight destinations as well as Palm Island. FlyPelican has five destinations in the ACT and NSW out of its hub in Newcastle, including Mudgee and Ballina. And what must take the prize for the smallest commercial carrier in the country, King Island Airlines operates a sole service between King Island and Moorabbin in Victoria.

Source: FlyPelican
Source: FlyPelican

Then there’s the West Australian based Skippers Aviation, primarily a fly-in-fly-out charter carrier for mining companies, alongside the likes of Maroomba Airlines and Alliance Airlines, but they also takes teir fleet of 27 aircraft to 12 regularly scheduled commercial destinations around the state. This includes places like Monkey Mia, famous for its bottlenose Dolphins, Broome and a wide variety of mining towns. Alliance similarly offer three routes in addition to its charter services between Perth, Karratha, Newman and Port Hedland.

Historically speaking, many of these carriers (especially the newer players) are likely to be bought by a competitor like QantasLink – as they did with airlines like Sunstate or Cobham – or even Rex, who formed out of the acquisition and merger of two regional airlines, which eventually would acquire some of its own, including Dubbo’s Air Link. But without these airlines, many of these regional cities would have no commercial air connection to major centres around the country, while they also introduce long time travellers to new destinations. So the next time you’re thinking about visiting somewhere new in Australia, and don’t mind hopping on a small aircraft, take a look at what some of the country’s regional carriers are up to. Their destinations may surprise you – and their prices are surprisingly competitive thanks in part to the growing competition in the market.

For more details about the carriers mentioned in this article visit their official websites:
JetGojetgo.com
Free Spirit Airlinesfreespiritairlines.com.au
Regional Expressrex.com.au
Airnorthairnorth.com.au
Sharp Airlinessharpairlines.com
Skippers Aviationskippers.com.au
King Island Airlineskingislandair.com.au
Skytrans & West Wing Aviationskytrans.com.au
FlyPelicanflypelican.com.au
Fly Tiwiflytiwi.com.au