Wild weather wreaked havoc on JetGo’s first day of Illawarra passenger flights on Monday, with one Wollongong-bound service diverted to Melbourne after it encountered severe turbulence and another cancelled due to persistent strong winds.
The dramas – caused by a gusty southerly change that surged up the coast during the afternoon – resulted in delays for flyers, saw the airline’s contingency plans questioned and delivered a first-day reminder of the challenges posed by the Illawarra Regional Airport.
JetGo has previously flagged the weather and terrain at the Albion Park airport as its biggest operational concerns, with the airline exploring the use of Navy-run HMAS Albatross at Nowra as an alternative landing site.
Monday’s plane problems began during the early afternoon, when bad weather saw JetGo’s 1.35pm Brisbane-to-Wollongong service diverted to Melbourne.
The aircraft had been due to land at Albion Park about 3pm.
“The aircraft on approach encountered severe turbulence and the pilot elected that due to the turbulence and the strong wind gusts it wasn’t safe to continue that approach,” JetGo managing director Paul Bredereck told the Mercury.
“He [the pilot] aborted the approach, he held for a period of time ... and decided the winds weren’t going to abate anytime soon, so the aircraft diverted to Melbourne.”
The persistent gusty conditions also saw an afternoon return flight from Melbourne’s Essendon Airport to Wollongong cancelled on Monday.
Passengers on both services were offered accommodation in Melbourne and a next-day flight to Wollongong, or the option to be transferred by bus to the city’s main airport at Tullamarine and fly to Sydney.
David Thompson, from Albion Park, was among the passengers due to fly back from the Victorian capital on JetGo’s cancelled 5.30pm flight.
Mr Thompson chose to fly from Tullamarine, where he caught a 9.15pm Virgin flight to Sydney. He was then bussed to Wollongong.
While acknowledging the weather and associated delays were beyond JetGo’s control, Mr Thompson said the airline needed a better contingency plan and improved communication in the event of cancelled flights.
Mr Bredereck denied there was a lack of communication, saying he was in the terminal at Tullamarine on Monday night and “made at least one of the PAs (public announcements)”.
He said passengers were told the Brisbane-to-Wollongong service was diverted due to bad weather and when the Wollongong-bound flight was cancelled, ground staff spoke individually with them about their alternatives.
Mr Bredereck admitted a number of passengers were inconvenienced, but said “safety comes first”.
JetGo has not yet put arrangements in place for an alternative landing location in the event of bad weather restricting operations at Albion Park.
“We’ve started making an application to be able to use Nowra [HMAS Albatross],” he said.
“It won’t be [used] that many days. We expect it’s probably only going to be half a dozen days a year or maybe a little bit more, but once we get that in place the disruptions won’t be as bad.”
Equipment upgrades at Albion Park would aid aircraft flying in low visibility but offered little help in strong wind gusts, he said.