While Ballina is running cash-neutral for Ballina Shire Council and generating operating surpluses of $1.3 million a year, Lismore’s losses will total an estimated $887,000 over the next five years.
While Ballina is running cash-neutral for Ballina Shire Council and generating operating surpluses of $1.3 million a year, Lismore’s losses will total an estimated $887,000 over the next five years. Marc Stapelberg

A tale of two airports: Ballina soars, while Lismore stalls

THE FUTURE of Lismore and Ballina's airports are rapidly diverging, with Ballina's huge tourism pull drawing record numbers and money - while Lismore faces a flat-lining passenger service and projected losses.

While Ballina is running cash-neutral for Ballina Shire Council and generating operating surpluses of $1.3 million a year, Lismore's losses will total an estimated $887,000 over the next five years.

Ballina airport has been growing at 10% year on year and will challenge Gold Coast Airport as the major domestic hub for southern Byron Shire and Ballina Shire after a record summer which saw 46,000 passengers in January.

It has bold hopes for the future - underpinned by the southern capitals' desire for Byron Bay - and recently won a $2.2 million grant from the State Government, the first stage of a total $7.2 million plan to triple the size of its terminal building.

On the other hand, Lismore airport's twice daily passenger service to and from Sydney run by Regional Express (REx) is stagnant, and yet the cost of the infrastructure to allow the service is costing Lismore City Council close to $200,000 a year in asset write-downs.

Lismore City Council commercial services manager Phil Klepzig said it was a "catch 22" - the airport's biggest income stream is from the passenger service, but maintaining the infrastructure needed to handle passenger planes is its biggest cost.

Where geographical isolation means some regional areas must have an airport, Lismore has Ballina 35 minutes away and Coolangatta a little over an hour, so the "accessibility" argument isn't strong.

On the plus side it has just received $1.5 million from the State Government for a reseal of its runway and new lighting to allow landing in almost all fog conditions.

The airport is also looking toward the growing general aviation market which includes recreational flying, and charter flights, and the continuation of aeromedical services including the relocation of the Westpac Life Saver Rescue Helicopter headquarters.

"We see a bit of an opportunity there for the small plane operators… that doesn't generate an awful lot of money… but enough to maintain the airport as an operating airport," Mr Klepzig said.

Another project is a partnership with North Coast TAFE to use the facility for trainee airport and flight staff, another potential revenue stream.

"We want to maintain the passenger service, but (also) grow these other businesses… so even if the passenger service did disappear it would still be a viable airport facility for Lismore City," Mr Klepzig said.