ABC Melbourne Drive with Ali Moore

ALI MOORE: We have been talking about the fact Bonza has gone into voluntary administration. Catherine King is the Minister for Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government. Catherine King, welcome to the program.

CATHERINE KING: Thanks for having me on.

ALI MOORE: Did you know this was going to happen?

CATHERINE KING: Well, the first we were made aware of flights being cancelled was first thing this morning. Media reports happened fairly early today. Obviously, we’ve seen media reports last week of the investors in Bonza making some commentary about bringing KordaMentha in, and last week, and we’ve been in conversations with Bonza during the course of the week. But the first we heard of the grounding of flights and the flights being cancelled was this morning.

ALI MOORE: So, before I get to the competitiveness, or lack thereof, of the market. Just in terms of help right now, I know you set up a hotline. Not you personally, the Government set up a hotline. Qantas and Virgin are offering assistance. What actually happens in these situations, if I’ve got a Bonza ticket and I get on a Qantas flight, who pays?

CATHERINE KING: Well, Qantas and Virgin and Jetstar have all actually said that they’ll be providing that service free of charge. There is a slight issue we’ll need to just deal with in terms of any of the airport charges that we’re just working our way through at the moment. But they have very kindly offered those flights for free, and that’s really terrific of them to actually have done that.

ALI MOORE: And what other role for the Government is there now?

CATHERINE KING: Well, really, we’ve been trying to make sure people have access to information so that they’ve got two things. Obviously, we’ve got stranded passengers and we want to try and get those home as quickly as possible, particularly given we’re at the tail end of school holidays in some states and territories as well. So, trying to make sure people can get on flights to get home, and that’s really been our immediate priority. The hotline, which my department has set up, it’s been staffed by public servants from right the way across my department to provide that information to people quickly is 1800 069 244. That will be open until 10:00 p.m. tonight. I think the last Bonza flight was scheduled at 9 p.m. So, we’ve also got– if people are at airports, please go to the Virgin or Qantas or Jetstar customer service counter and make yourself known that you are a Bonza customer and what has happened to you, and that they will endeavour to do what they can to assist you as quickly as possible. Obviously, we’ve now had Bonza go into voluntary administration in the last hour or so and they’ve appointed Hall Chadwick as the administrator. It’ll be up to the administrator to determine whether Bonza can keep trading, can keep flying. It’ll need to make some statements about that today. I would not expect, you know, it’ll depend on whether they can continue to get their planes in the air to, whether flights continue to go tomorrow. But again, people need to keep an ear out for whether flights will be going tomorrow or not. Again, if we’ve got the issue tomorrow of stranded passengers, then we’ll deal with that again tomorrow in the next few days or so.

ALI MOORE: Minister, do you think that is a possibility, that they actually could fly again tomorrow?

CATHERINE KING: Again, that is going to be absolutely up to the administrators. They have four planes that they lease and those planes, as we understand it, overnight, the leaseholder had called that in and said that they were not to continue flying. Now that they’ve gone into voluntary administration, those planes are still available, but it’s entirely up to the administrator as to whether they believe it can continue to operate. Look, I think, you know, to be speculating, I think. I think it would be unlikely, but that’s really a matter for the administrator to make some comments about that.

ALI MOORE: You’re the Minister for Regional Development as well. The big selling point for Bonza was that it was flying to regional centres that other airlines don’t fly to. And we’ve just had a whole lot of calls this afternoon of people who thought it was wonderful because it gave them access to centres and flights that they wouldn’t otherwise get access to. Is there some, you know, I suppose some role for Government there in trying to ensure that, you know, the aviation industry services the whole country, not just the bits that make money?

CATHERINE KING: Well, certainly we’ve got a really strong regional network, both with Rex, obviously, flying to our region, and Qantas, also through QantasLink flies to regions, as does Virgin to some extent as well.

ALI MOORE: But there are still big holes, still big gaps.

CATHERINE KING: Yeah. And they’re always there, always have been. And I think Bonza coming into the market with four planes, it was always a very small player in that marketplace. I think what we have said very clearly as we move forward with our aviation white paper is that we think that we are a small market despite the fact that we travel so much, that really having the strength of Qantas and Virgin is important. Having Jetstar as the lower-cost carrier is also important, and Rex as a regional airline. There are also other smaller airlines that do operate out of some regional centres as well, creating the ecosystem for that to happen. It’s not unusual that we have a small player pop up and then find some difficulty within that marketplace, which is quite small.

ALI MOORE: So, you’re saying, Minister, in your view, do we have an aviation landscape that really can only handle the Jetstars, the Qantas, the Rex and the Virgins, and other players come in at their peril, i.e Bonza?

CATHERINE KING: Well what I’d say is that we have a small market, and so there is only so many flights or passengers that are to go around in that market. And I think it’s important that we’ve got a really strong – over 51 per cent Australian owned Qantas – they’ve got a strong competitor to Qantas in Virgin, and they are making their way back through COVID and the difficulties that they had through there and making sure we’ve got that regional aviation network. We have a role to play in terms of making sure we’ve got good, solid regional airports for people to fly into, making sure where security is needed, that we’re assisting where we can with that and making sure that that’s clear for the aviation sector as well, and, of course, regulating the safety of the aviation market. So, I hope Bonza continues to succeed. But again, that is going to be absolutely up to the administrators as they now go through the process of what its liabilities are and what it’s possible to go forward.

ALI MOORE: So, absolutely no role for government in any form of rescue, propping up support for a regional player?

CATHERINE KING: Well, certainly, as I said, there is a role for government to ensure that we have a strong aviation sector within Australia. But certainly, in terms of whether you’re asking me, will we, you know, can we bail out Bonza right at this minute? That is not something that the government has before us. We’ll talk to the administrators, but I would say that, you know, it is from time to time these smaller players do come into the market, and it is a challenging market. Aviation’s hard, and aviation in a small market, Australia is certainly very difficult.

ALI MOORE: So, what now for those regional areas that had so much hope and certainly managed to get quite a few people through?

CATHERINE KING: Well, certainly that’ll be again up to the administrators to determine whether Bonza can continue to trade, continue to operate. I certainly hope that is the case, but we’ll really leave it to the administrators now to make some announcements about that.

ALI MOORE: Minister, I really appreciate you giving us your time. Thank you.