I was just thinking about the last time I wore shoes. Since ceasing work in an office I find that the occasions where I have to wear ‘proper’ footwear are becoming less and less. Going to work these days involves donning a pair of bathers and an Austswim instructors shirt to provide a good role model for all the littlies, ensuring that their skin is not subjected to the brutal ravages of the sun that these days require me to regularly have potential skin cancers surgically removed or burnt off with liquid nitrogen.
What brought up the subject was talking to my son in Brisbane last night, arranging to visit him on my way to South America in November, promising to always wear sandals so that we would be rejected as hostages if captured by the Sentosa Luminosa, the Argentine paramilitary or the remnants of Pinochet’s ‘disappearing squads’. My son said that he would greet any demands for ransom with “Never heard of him”.
Organising international flights out of Darwin has become a bit difficult. A couple of years back we could choose between Singapore, Malaysian and Ansett. Now we’re reduced to Garuda about once a week and Royal Brunei with a stopover in the most cheerless, boring city in Asia. Of course QF still goes through Darwin but they change the services to suit themselves with little regard to what the customer wants. I did a good deal of research on the internet about the most cost effective means of getting to and fro, the efficacy of using a South American air pass in moving around between the Aztec ruins of Peru, through the lakes district Chile to the glacial parks of Patagonia. I thought I had it all sorted, printed a draft itinerary and went along to my local Fight Centre office, because they advertise they will beat any internet booking price, and asked them to arrange some flights for me.
Ten days later, after a couple of angry phone calls along the lines of, “How long does it take to book a flight anyway?”, I was told that trans Pacific flights were booked out until March 2004. I’m reliably informed that travel to Patagonia at any time other than high summer is too cold for those other than penguins and Kiwis from Dunedin, so, because I tend to suffer from frostbite when the temperature dips below 15 C, I was dismayed at the news that we couldn’t get the cheapest, shortest flights we wanted. “O.K.”, I said, “can you look at some sort of Circle Pacific fare, or another option for getting us to Lima, Santiago or Buenos Aires.” That was the last I heard of the bloke at Flight Centre.
Surprised at how successful Flight Centre has been despite this attitude, perhaps they don’t know how to organise anything more than a package tour to Disneyland, off I went to STA, thinking in my ignorance that this company specialises in backpacker-type travel, they’ll know all the ins and outs of how to get to SA most economically. Wrong !! At least they only took three days to tell me the best they could do was a ‘Five Continents Fare’. Brisbane, Los Angeles, Santiago, La Paz …… (apparently the aeroplanes stop there forever, must have something to do with the altitude) … Buenos Aires, London, Frankfurt, Singapore and back home to Darwin. I am not especially amoured of flying anyway, I consider myself a prime candidate for DVT, you know, overweight, high cholesterol etc., and the thought of spending four days flying around the world in cattle class and wasting the best part of a week during airport stopovers waiting for connecting flights, didn’t impress me at all.
This ‘can’t find you a seat on you preferred flight’ stuff had me confused. As I said I had looked at seat availability on the web and, according to LANChile and Aerolinas Argentinas, there were seats available for the direct flights from Aukland to Santiago or BA. No way was the agent going to tell a dumb punter like me the intricacies of why Flight Centre, STA or any other travel agent in Australia couldn’t get access to these obviously empty seats.
Back to the drawing board I went and looked up alternatives to going direct across the Pacific. Malaysian Airways flies from Kuala Lumpur to Buenos Aires via South Africa twice a week at approximately the same fare as LANChile and AA, if I could get to KL that would be an acceptable option, longer certainly but not ridiculously so. The lady at MAS was very helpful. “Certainly sir, there are seats available on MH 201, where in Australia would you like to fly from ?” “Darwin”, I said “anywhere else would involve us travelling south and returning back over where we had come from.” “Unfortunately,” the svelte voice on the phone murmured softly, blunting the bad news, ” Malaysian only flies out of the capital cities and we are not permitted to pick up passengers in Darwin, even though we land there on our way to Kuala Lumpur.” “That means we would have to fly to Adelaide, board a MAS flight that would promptly turn around and fly back to Darwin, is that right ?”
This state of affairs arises from a little known regulation called cabotage or the provision of commercial domestic air services within a country. Cabotage rights are classified as either consecutive cabotage, the right of foreign-owned airlines to fly a domestic flight stage within the host country as a continuation of an international service (also know as eighth freedom), or standalone cabotage, the unrestricted right of foreign-owned airlines to provide domestic air services in the host country (also known as ninth freedom). In a report into airservices (Pp 114 – 115 6.2.3 Cabotage ) a house of reps committee found,
Restricting cabotage rights for the carriage of passengers and freight to domestic airlines reduces competition on domestic routes. These restrictions help keep fares and freight rates higher than they otherwise might be, boosting domestic airline revenue at the expense of domestic consumers. Allowing foreign carriers some cabotage rights could improve competition in the domestic market. A relatively limited form of cabotage would allow a foreign airline stopping at two or more points within Australia to carry domestic passengers and freight. A more fundamental form of cabotage would allow dedicated domestic flights by foreign carriers. Granting consecutive cabotage rights to international airlines may allow them to increase revenue on trips into and out of Australia. For example, the ability to carry passengers or freight on the route from Perth to Australia’s east coast and vice versa, might improve South African Airways’ overall yield on flights to and from South Africa, and could lead to reduced fares and/or increased frequency.
The Northern Territory Government’s submission to the Industry Commission Inquiry into International Air Services, March 1998 stated that cabotage rights for
foreign carriers between Darwin and other cities would improve airline returns. It said:
The benefits of cabotage rights would be the ability for carriers using Darwin as a setdown point en-route to other Australian cities to earn revenue on the sectors beyond Darwin and therefore increase the carrier’s revenue raising capacity and hence its commitment to Darwin (sub. 40, p. 4).
The benefits of cabotage rights would be the ability for carriers using Darwin as a setdown point en-route to other Australian cities to earn revenue on the sectors beyond Darwin and therefore increase the carrier’s revenue raising capacity and hence its commitment to Darwin. The competitive advantages that may follow the addressing of cabotage as reflected by the introduction of new airfare levels between Australian source market cities and the NT would potentially offer some benefit to the NT. It may also offer the opportunity to open new routes, eg Drw/Mel. Benefits would also be gained through cabotage rights for the carriage of air freight between Darwin and other Australian destinations.
The issue has been addressed ad nauseum in other reports e.g. Ten Year Plan for Tourism Page 2 Priority Issues Paper – Aviation but the NT Government seems to be focussed on the really important issues such as pool fencing rather than demanding that the feds remove cabotage regulations for Darwin, Alice Springs and Broome. Guess which airline is exempt from cabotage ?
Aghast at the idea of flying 3000 kms south just to turn around and fly another 3000km back to where I started, I decided, as a last resort, to try one last time. Qantas code share with LANChile on the trans-Pacific route, they used to have a very pleasant route via Tahiti connecting with LANChile that flew via Easter Island to South America, just what I wanted, but that route no longer exists. Beggars can’t be choosers I thought so, I called 131313 and asked if there was any way I could get to South America. “What day would you like to go” the cheerful booking person said. ” Preferably after the Rugby World Cup final on the 22nd and before the end of the shoulder season fares on the 30th please.” “Unfortunately we have no seats during that time, it appears that all the Argentines are going home during that week, but we do have seats on all three flights during the week before,” the Qantas clerk said. The upshot of this epistle is that somehow Qantas (or LANChile) hold back seats from Australian travel agents, flying less than full, rather than surrendering some sort of monoply. Strange are the ways of international airlines eh ?