In a country as vast as Australia, it is no surprise that the population relies heavily on air transport, particularly in the more remote regions of the country. For the residents in these regions, these air services provide a vital lifeline. In many regions of Australia, these remote air routes are subsidised by the government. While the local residents view these services as an essential link to the outside world, for the AvGeek, it is a unique opportunity to experience some interesting aircraft types, airlines, and routes.
One such flight route that I was fortunate enough to experience recently was from Cairns to Darwin, via Gove. While there are at least three direct flights per day from Cairns to Darwin on the other carriers, I was very interested to try out the service offered by Airnorth.
Airnorth was established in 1978 and has always had a strong focus on providing air services within the remote regions of Australia’s top-end. In recent years, the company has been focusing in particular on the contract charter market, as well as FIFO operations.
At present, there is a lot of competition on the Cairns-Darwin route, with no fewer than three direct daily flights by airlines. Despite the obvious cost and time benefits of taking a direct flight, I really do prefer to fly regional airlines where possible, as I find that the product they deliver is more exclusive and individualized than others. The flight is operated by the Embraer E-170, which is configured with 76 seats in an all-economy-class, 2-2 layout.
Airnorth offers its passengers online check-in on select routes, and I decided to give it a go. Upon getting to the seat selection page, the seat map showed that I had been allocated 14A – a window seat in the rear section of the aircraft. Unfortunately, when my boarding pass was issued, my seat had mysteriously changed to 6D, an aisle seat. Needless to say, I was slightly upset since I wanted the view, but there was no way to change my seat online after check-in had been completed. All my worries were unnecessary, however, as the lovely check-in agent in Cairns was able to change my seat without any issues to 1A — score!
Cairns Airport has recently been voted the 13th-best small airport in the world, and it is not hard to see why – the layout is very modern and open. The only thing that I dislike about the domestic terminal is the lack of a decent ramp view; however, the walk to the aircraft more than made up for this. Having bulkhead seats on any aircraft is always a bit of a gamble in terms of how much legroom there will be. Thankfully, on Airnorth’s E-170, the legroom in the bulkhead row is very generous. I should also mention that the seat width is not restricted in any significant way, as is also all-too-often the case with bulkhead seats.
Boarding and departure of the flight was on-time and we had a healthy load of 58 passengers for the first segment to Gove. This flight had a scheduled duration of 1:30, so I honestly was not expecting much in terms of on-board service, especially given the experience with flights of similar length in Europe. But then I remembered this was a regional airline, in Australia – one of the few countries in the world where in-flight service is still a large part of the passenger experience.
The service started off with a choice of cold drinks, which was followed by a hot lunch. Yes you read correctly – a hot meal on a one-and-a-half-hour flight! And this was not the end; post-lunch tea and coffee were also offered. I was really impressed by this, as no other Australian mainline or regional carriers come close to offering the same type of service on a flight with such a short length.
Following an on-time arrival into Gove, all passengers were asked to disembark the aircraft, with those traveling onto Darwin permitted to leave their carry-on luggage on-board. I was surprised that for our 30-minute transit stop, even Darwin bound passengers were asked to disembark. According to the crew, this was so that they could clean the aircraft and for refuelling procedures. There is not much to be said about the Gove terminal building except that it is clean, functional, and more than sufficient for the three daily flights that service the airport. The real star of this airport terminal is the air conditioning system, which is very welcome, especially during the wet season when the humidity often exceeds 75%.
After a short while, all passengers were invited to re-board the aircraft for the quick one-hour flight to Darwin. On this leg, there were 31 passengers and, from what I could tell, most were joining the flight at Gove with very few passengers thru connecting from Cairns. Following a powerful takeoff, the inflight service once again commenced. For this shorter flight, we were offered a very tasty ham and cheese sandwich along with a choice of cold drinks. Once again, the service went above and beyond what I was expecting.
Given that it was getting late in the day during the wet season, the storm dodging soon began as we encountered some moderate turbulence on descent. I have to say, the E-170 handled all the bumps very well, and in no time we were landing in Darwin 10 minutes ahead of schedule. A walk of about 100 meters was required to reach the terminal building and, once I was inside, my bags were already on the carousel. I was very impressed!
Overall, Airnorth delivered a very solid and quality product for a regional carrier. Even by Australian standards, their service goes above and beyond what is expected of an economy class travel experience in this day and age. Airnorth also places a strong focus on brand identity – something that I find airlines are moving away from. Given that Airnorth operates to some very remote communities, often as the sole carrier providing the services, brand identity and recognition are a crucial aspect of building the communities’ support and trust for the airline.