VIRGIN Australia will next month replace its 104-seat Embraer 190 jets with smaller, slower turbo prop planes on its route between Albury and Sydney.
The move will give Albury Council some short-term breathing space to develop plans to widen the existing 1900 metre runway to allow larger planes to return to the city.
The council has an exemption to allow the Embraer 190s to land in Albury after the airline began operating the jets on the Border route last year, though Embraer 170 jets had been introduced in 2008.
City engineering director Brad Ferris confirmed yesterday that talks had started with the Civil Aviation Safety Authority about the implications of building a wider runway at Albury.
Changes to runway requirements would force Albury to widen its existing runway from 30 to 45 metres if there is increased demand by airlines to land larger planes such as the Embraer 190.
But Mr Ferris said Virgin had notified the council this week they would switch to the ATR-72 turbo prop aircraft, seating up to 78 passengers, from late August.
“Virgin has informed us the current demand will still be met by the new plane,” Mr Ferris said.
“The availability of seats won’t be lessened.”
The new aircraft is expected to add 15 minutes to Virgin’s flight times on the Sydney route.
Mr Ferris said a wider runway, if pursued, would require 150-metre flight strips on either side and would push the airport boundary beyond Fallon Street on the northern side where the Albury racecourse and businesses are situated.
Demands for a wider runway would see the airport outgrow its present location within 20 years.
“Physically we can’t fit a 300-metre flight strip in the current location,” Mr Ferris said.
“It would end up on Fallon Street.
“It is something we need to talk to CASA about.
“It is more about strategy than a direct impact now.”
Mr Ferris conceded the large planes could return one day.
“If demand at Albury increases over the next 20 and 30 years, which we expect it to, we would need to have more (larger) planes fly in,” he said.
“We would rather have more flights than bigger planes.”
A similar sized airport at Port Macquarie received $15 million in federal funding this year to widen its runway, taxiway and terminal to be able to accommodate larger planes.