The chairman of Mildura Airport has become Australia’s first airport boss to call for the JobKeeper scheme to be extended after it emerged the initiative is $60 billion under budget.
Peter O’Donnell told Australian Aviation, “We’ll get through this, but my concern is that the regional networks will be decimated because airports will be fundamentally without funds or bankrupted.”
He added that while, initially, his focus was on returning his terminal to the same standards when restrictions ease, now the objective is purely survival, having stood down more than half his staff after losing around 97 per cent of revenue.
“We’re as operational as we can be but there are only five flights a week,” said O’Donnell. “Security staff are stood down and it’s hard to get good café people. When we do restart, we have to re-engage these people and hope they’re still around and available.”
The JobKeeper package was introduced to provide coronavirus-effected business with $1,500 per employee, per fortnight.
The companies are then legally obliged to pass that payment onto workers in a bid to keep the economy active during the pandemic.
However, many airport workers are locked out of the financial package because their firms are council-owned; while staff at dnata were similarly told they were no longer eligible because their company is owned by a foreign government.
On Monday morning, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg told the Today program he accepted blame for the apparent reporting error, which means the aid package will only cost $70 billion and cover 3.5 million Australians, rather than $130 billion and 6.5 million as forecast. However, he insisted that there are no plans to open it up to more workers.
Mildura is Victoria’s busiest regional airport, and O’Donnell explained that while he supported extending help and supplements to airlines to maintain a network, it has put pressure on airports to keep going without similar funding.
“We are owned by the government but we’re a private company with one shareholder, which is Mildura City Council,” explained O’Donnell. “We’ve never gone to the council for operational support. We’ve been fully self-sufficient but we can’t access any of the support.
“It’s really frustrating. We understood we would take a massive revenue hit for a period. This would be finite, there would be a start and a finish to it and then a recovery. We decided we needed to one, build a plan to survive but then two, try to emerge at the end at least as good an airport as when we went into it. Now it’s only about survival. We’re trying to flatten our own economic curve to make our money last longer, but with minimal support from government.
“We’re looking for an amount we would otherwise have got through JobKeeper. We’re down 97 per cent in revenue.”
He said the mistake was a great opportunity for regional airports to say “We’re desperate, if you want to remove just one part of the rules, we can access it”.
Earlier this week, the TWU said there was now “no excuse” for the government not to extend JobKeeper to omitted airport workers after the underspend emerged, while the Labor MP whose constituency covers Sydney Airport told a press conference that ineligible employees “live in Australia, work in Australia, pay taxes in Australia and contribute to the Australian economy. These deserve the support of the Australian government”.