Qantas axes Wollongong-Melbourne service

Qantas has blamed rising fuel costs for its decision to pull its services out of the Illawarra.The last plane on the Wollongong-Melbourne route will leave Illawarra Regional Airport at 7.50pm on Friday, July 18, the airline announced yesterday.Illawarra business, political and tourism leaders have expressed disappointment at the decision, which Illawarra Business Chamber chief executive Mark Grimson described as "a sad day in the region's history".Qantas said none of its staff would lose their jobs as a result of the decision, but yesterday NSW Air, the contractor that runs ground handling and checking-in for QantasLink passengers at the Albion Park airport, informed four of its staff they would no longer be employed.NSW Air general manager Harry Mitchell said one fuelling position might also have to go. "They are devastated. This is a devastating day for the region," he said.Transport Workers Union Wollongong and South Coast secretary Richard Olsen said affected workers would receive help to find new jobs. But he described the Qantas decision as "ridiculous"."Fuel crisis? Let's put that up against the half-year profit of $618 million they recently posted," he said.Qantas chief executive Geoff Dixon said Wollongong-Melbourne services had been under-performing for "some time" and rising fuel prices had made it "difficult ... to continue to operate" the older Dash 8 aircraft.The first Qantas flight took off from Illawarra Regional Airport on June 6, 2005, after high-level lobbying by BlueScope Steel.It was hoped the service would carry 17,500 passengers a year, mainly businesspeople, but the Mercury understands a steady decrease in patronage means as few as 12,500 a year are using the service.Many flights on the ageing 36-seat Bombardier Dash 8 aircraft have only been half full on its 14 weekly services between Wollongong and Melbourne.Shellharbour City Council, which along with state and federal governments spent $1.5 million on runway maintenance and infrastructure to get Qantas to come to the Illawarra, maintains the future of the airport is bright.The council had an income of $250,000 from airport fees last financial year and its airport manager, Arthur Webster, said the airport would continue to make a profit."With the Rural Fire Service about to start there, HARS (Historical Aircraft Restoration Service) and everyone else, it is clear Qantas were only one section of the airport business," Mr Webster said.Minister for the Illawarra David Campbell said he was "disappointed ... (but) I can understand the decision in the current context of record fuel prices".

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