Sky high - $1150 for a domestic flight?

Which way to a cheap flight? Mount Isa is a long way from anywhere.
Which way to a cheap flight? Mount Isa is a long way from anywhere. Photo: Tourism Queensland

An all-expenses paid trip to Fiji or a return flight from Mount Isa to Sydney?

While a five-night trip to a Fijian resort on a secluded beach with a cocktail in my hand sounded almost impossible to give up, I instead opted for a trip to Sydney. Silly me, right?

But this is the harsh reality of living in a remote region where regional cities such as Mount Isa have been left for dead, labelled too expensive for sustainable airline competition.

Although the trip was planned at short notice, I never thought I'd have to fork out $1150 for a domestic flight within Australia. Gone are the days of $79 flights to Melbourne for the weekend, or a quick break in Byron Bay. That ship has sailed, or more pertinently perhaps, the plane's bound for another, more cost-efficient, tarmac.

The closest "city" to Mount Isa is 900 kilometres away. But even a flight to Townsville will set you back about $450 return. I'll drive, thanks.

For the past decade, many Mount Isa locals have had to take to the dusty roads at holiday time — it's simply too expensive to fly.

Until earlier this year, Qantas enjoyed 10 years without competition in the Mount Isa region, leaving locals at the mercy of the national carrier when they wanted to get home or visit family and friends.

In 2001, Qantas effectively ran Virgin out of town when the Flying Kangaroo launched twice-daily services to Brisbane, on top of Virgin's flights.

Virgin had little option but to terminate its Mount Isa to Brisbane route.

But Virgin Australia returned to Mount Isa in June this year, claiming their air fares would be up to 27 per cent cheaper than its competitor.

The airline did a deal with mining giant Xstrata to make that weekday service viable.

But while locals heralded the return of Virgin to "the Isa", it was soon apparent that prices would not decrease very much at all and that you had to be mighty patient and have the flexibility of an Olympic gymnast if you wanted to snap up any sort of bargain.

Virgin Australia has one weekday departure time for the Brisbane to Mount Isa route. It has no plans to introduce a second departure time, despite the policy leaving interstate passengers in the lurch.

The 6am weekday departure from the state capital to Mount Isa doesn't connect interstate travellers and forces them to stay overnight or choose the only other option, and fly Qantas.

Virgin Australia group executive of sales, Judith Crompton, said they would work with Xstrata, should the need arise for additional flights in the future.

But customers with no connection to mining companies, desperately waiting for the airline to introduce increased frequencies, including a second departure time, will be sadly disappointed.

A forced overnight stay, and few hundred dollars later, along with paying for the flight, baggage and a meal, means that flying Qantas doesn't sound too bad.

While Virgin's flights are mostly cheaper than Qantas, the national carrier does have the right idea. They have more appropriate flight times, no baggage prices and meals included.

City folk living along the coast of Australia, you have it good. With up to four airlines to choose from and numerous flight times to suit your needs, I don't think you realise just how good you've got it.

In the meantime, I am currently weighing up whether I should drive the nine hours to Townsville to catch a plane to Sydney for the Christmas break, and save $600, or again fork out another $1200 for a return flight from Mount Isa to Sydney. Sigh.

Up to 15 per cent of Australia's population live in rural and remote areas.

Yes, we enjoy no traffic, beautiful landscapes and spectacular sunsets.

But what we do yearn for are affordable flights to reconnect us with family and friends.

The harsh reality though is that pigs might fly — because we certainly can't afford to.

Sophie Cousins is a senior reporter at the North West Star in Mount Isa.

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