Passengers and their families, as well as staff and curious onlookers ensured Illawarra Regional Airport was a hive of activity on Monday.
Regional airline operator JetGo began regular direct flights between Illawarra Regional Airport and Melbourne.
JetGo will operate a seven day-a-week service between the Albion Park airport and Essendon Airport.
The first flight arrived at Essendon Airport on Monday at 8.20am.
Four days a week (Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday) JetGo will operate twice daily flights between Wollongong and Melbourne, with daily flights on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.
The airline will also fly to Brisbane seven days a week, departing Wollongong at 11am daily. The return Brisbane-Wollongong service leaves at 12.35pm each day.
However, the inaugural flight from Brisbane to Wollongong was diverted to Essendon due to weather and turbulence.
Monday’s first flights came almost a decade after Qantas stopped regular trips to Melbourne from the Illawarra.
The service operated from June 2005 to July 2008.
Illawarra Regional Airport is owned and operated by Shellharbour City Council.
Shellharbour Mayor Marianne Saliba was aboard the first JetGo flight from Albion Park to Melbourne at 7am.
“The plane was well occupied and there were a lot of excited people,” Cr Saliba said. “It was a real mixture of people – some for business, some for pleasure, some visiting families. One or two of them were just taking it because it was the first flight and they wanted to be on it.”
Cr Saliba described it as “a really exciting day to actually see this come to fruition”.
“From council’s perspective, there was the issue of ‘is this going to be successful?’… There was some hesitation in going down that path if it wasn’t going to work.
“But for us to continue to be patient and work all through the issues to get to today will bring a lot of joy to a lot of people.”
JetGo was unveiled as the operator of the region’s new passenger airline services in early July.
Shellharbour City Council has worked to install a new temporary passenger terminal at the airport and upgrade existing infrastructure.
Cr Saliba said more than 3000 tickets had already been sold for flights out of Albion Park.
“JetGo are also considering other routes. They’ve talked about the Gold Coast and (going) to other areas.
“There’s also an opportunity for us to take on other service providers, to come in and provide flights to other areas.”
JetGo Australia managing director Airlines Paul Bredereck said ticket sales for the new direct service to Melbourne had exceeded the airline’s expectations.
It’s ‘welcome home’ for former Illawarra resident Sean
Isabella and Dominic De Santis eagerly awaited the arrival of the first JetGo flight from Melbourne to Albion Park on Monday morning.
The Albion Park youngsters excitedly wielded a “welcome home” sign for their uncle, Sean Jenkin.
Having grown up in the Illawarra, Mr Jenkin has lived in Seattle for the past 17 years.
Mr Jenkin, 40, who works in the video game industry, travelled to Melbourne for a conference.
He flew into Illawarra Regional Airport on Monday to spend a week with family before returning to the US.
“I’ve never seen the Illawarra from the perspective of the coastline, up high, beautiful blue skies,” he said.
“Never from that height, never from Melbourne into Wollongong. Flying into Wollongong for the first time was an amazing experience.”
His sister Amy De Santis said the JetGo flights to Albion Park helped Mr Jenkin to maximise time with family. “We would have lost half a day going to Sydney to get him,” she said. “This way, five minutes after leaving the airport we’ll all be in the pool.”