A regional airline in north Queensland has flown in the face of COVID by expanding its workforce, buying a new airplane and increasing air transport services.
Bucking the downward trend in the aviation industry, Hinterland Aviation has spread its wings after winning a lucrative contract to fly construction workers in and out of the 250MW/2000MWh Kidston Pumped Storage Hydro Project (K2-Hydro) owned by Genex Power Limited (Genex).
With a fleet of 16 planes and a staff of 70, the Australian owned airline has been flying people around north Queensland for almost 40 years.
But in March 2020, General Manager Andrew Clair said the fate of the airline was firmly in the hands of a global pandemic as it raged across the world, hitting the shores of Australia and spreading into Queensland.
Around Australia, airlines were cutting flights and pilots and support crew were losing jobs.
“We fly charter flights and a regular passenger transport services to Palm Island, Cooktown, Coen, Kowanyama and Pormpuraaw,” Andrew said. “We had a drop in revenue of about 80 per cent at the start of March 2020. It was a major hit to the business and very scary.”
But just as the work evaporated, the company’s luck changed
After flying several charter flights to the old Kidston gold mine for Genex over a couple of years, Hinterland Aviation won a contract in March 2020 to fly construction workers to the K2-Hydro Project 280 kilometres inland between Cairns and Townsville.
The K2-Hydro Project is the first pumped hydro project to be built in Australia in 40 years and will generate and store power to supplement high-demand periods in north Queensland.
The $777 million project has been underpinned by a $610 million loan from the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility (NAIF).
NAIF’s support of Genex’s project is enabling contracts, employment and an economic boost in north Queensland, with K2-Hydro creating up to 900 jobs during construction and injecting more than $2 billion into the economy.
Hinterland Aviation’s contract with Genex now sees them fly workers to the K2-Hydro Project site at Kidston several times a week from Cairns and Townsville.
Chair of the NAIF Board, Tracey Hayes, visited Hinterland Aviation headquarters in Cairns in February to meet the local team and find out how the local project was generating jobs and economic activity.
“NAIF was an early supporter of the Kidston project and this is the first pumped hydro constructed in Australia since 1984,” Tracey said. “NAIF investment in the Genex project in north Queensland has resulted in downstream benefits for Hinterland Aviation and the entire Cairns community.
“For example, three flights a week now between Cairns and the mine site means that they can source employees from the local region in and around Cairns.”
The development of the Kidston Clean Energy Hub, which began with the 50MW Kidston Solar Project (KS1) (operating since 2017), has brought significant economic stimulus to the Queensland region. Construction of KS1 saw 180 employees at Kidston as well as upgrades to the Oaks Rush Accommodation Camp.
During construction, up to 900 construction workers over a period of almost four years will be required to develop the K2-Hydro Project and associated infrastructure. Genex has worked closely with Hinterland Aviation over the years with Genex Power Chief Operating Officer, Arran McGhie commenting on the relationship:
“With the construction of the company’s flagship Kidston Pumped Storage Hydro project underway, Genex is thrilled to be partnering with Hinterland for the provision of charter flights to Kidston from Cairns for our own team as well as other key stakeholder staff over the next three years.”
In contrast to airlines around Australia and the world, the Kidston contract enabled the company to grow its workforce by 15 per cent to 70 people and buy a new 12 seater Cessna Caravan airplane to free up one of its King Air twin turboprop aircraft for the Kidston project.
Hinterland Aviation was able to employ three additional airline pilots to work in north Queensland after signing a contract The company has been able to establish a Genex lounge at the Cairns airport to fly construction workers to site.
“The contract for the Kidston project supported us and assisted us greatly and in that mission to not lose a single employee during COVID,” Andrew said.
“I think it’s fantastic, I think more attention should be focused on the northern part of Australia and a lot more of these projects are needed.
“It will always be our greatest achievement at Hinterland and its great we can say we expanded and got more planes, and started new RPT routes and are making X amount of dollars, but what has been paramount is that we got through COVID without losing a single member of the team.”
For pilot Nicole Clarke, NAIF’s investment in the Genex project and subsequent contract with Hinterland Aviation has given her a stable job in Cairns despite the impacts of COVID-19 on the aviation industry.
“Flying with Hinterland Aviation has given my husband and I the financial stability to be able to cement our life here in Cairns,” Nicole said. “We have been able to buy a house and be comfortable in the fact that we can be here and base ourselves here because I have a stable job.
“I’ve managed a job throughout COVID when a lot of pilots in similar position to myself haven’t been able to hold a role, so being offered a position at Hinterland made me feel very lucky and very privileged to be able to continue flying.”