Oct 16, 2014

A Toothless Tiger In Alice Springs

Tiger Airways suddenly stopped flying to Alice Springs on July 22. Tigerair Australia CEO Rob Sharp insinuated that the decision was due to a lack of demand.

“The commercial reality is we are a volume business and to build a sustainable business in the Australian domestic market we need to see a sustainable level of demand for our services,” Sharp said in a media release on May 2.

Sharp’s comment significantly simplifies the economics of the decision and blames the consumer for not purchasing Tiger’s product. But this over-simplification allows Sharp and Tiger Airways to painlessly exit Central Australia while leaving residents short-changed.

The beach at Ormiston Gorge, West MacDonnell Ranges, Northern Territory

Tourism NT spent about $700,000 promoting Tiger’s services to Alice Springs. Tiger Airways negotiated with Alice Springs Airport and the Northern Territory Government to ensure a collaborative approach prior to flights taking off in April 2013. Tiger Airways was eager to use the opportunity for marketing when it announced services from both Sydney and Melbourne would occur four times each week. Despite the significant use of public resources and the marketing benefits to Tiger Airways, the good news barely lasted a year.

Put simply, a review of Tiger’s network concluded that the plane and staff being used to fly to Alice Springs could make more money on a different route. The decision to no longer fly to Alice Springs was not because the route is unviable, but because there is more money to be made elsewhere. It is potentially more lucrative for Tiger Airways to focus resources on taking a greater percentage of a busy route, for example Sydney-Melbourne, than a stable route into Alice Springs.

Sharp explains this in terms of growth.

“We remain focused on building a sustainable platform for growth, which includes measured growth in line with consumer demand,” Sharp said.

A full plane flying into Alice Springs four times per week has no ability to “grow”. But increasing a percentage of market share between Sydney and Melbourne allows for the potential perpetual growth shareholders and boards so desire.

A dingo on the drive into Ormiston Gorge, West MacDonnell Ranges, Northern Territory

Since Tiger Airways stopped flights to Alice Springs, accommodation occupancy rates have plummeted. After being in business for over 10 years, backpacker hostel Annie’s Place closed after battling to fill their rooms. Part-owner Janice Knappstein highlighted Tiger’s decision as a huge factor.

“We went down to about 25-30% occupancy rate,” Knappstein told ABC Local Radio.

General Manager of Tourism Central Australia Jaclyn Thorne said similar problems were occurring across Alice Springs.

“Everybody is having a challenging season, they’re around the 40%, 50% occupancy at the moment and that’s been in the last month or so but certainly before then they were having some good occupancy rates up to 80%, 90%,” said Thorne to the ABC.

But it is not just Tiger Airways’ departure that is creating problems for Alice Springs’ tourism industry. Decisions made by Qantas and its low-cost subsidiary Jetstar are also having an impact.

Qantas now has a monopoly on flights to Alice Springs from all major Australian cities. With no competition there is little price pressure. Rather than let Jetstar create competition on the Alice Springs route, Qantas allowed their subsidiary to serve Uluru with its low-cost flights in direct competition with rival Virgin Australia.

From June 29, Jetstar began flights direct from Melbourne to Uluru return four times each week. They also increased the number of flights from Sydney to Uluru return to four times each week. Less then one month later, Tiger ceased their four weekly return flights from each city to Alice Springs.

Although Uluru and Alice Springs are 468km apart, the decision by Jetstar immediately had an impact on tourists flying with Tiger to Alice Springs. But it had little impact on the Qantas services to Alice Springs, and ultimately strengthened Qantas’ monopoly.

Cooling off at Ellery Creek Big Hole, MacDonnell Ranges, Northern Territory

Uluru was recently announced as the most expensive place to stay in Australia. In a survey of hotels worldwide, it was also announced as one of the most expensive places to stay in the world. The resort at nearby Yulara has a monopoly on all layers of accommodation, from camping through to luxurious. The resort is owned by the Indigenous Land Corporation and managed by Voyages Hotels & Resorts.

The remoteness of the resort make it an expensive operation to run. Voyages must, of course, charge accordingly. The Indigenous Land Corporation have little incentive to risk degrading the World Heritage Listed region by opening up more land for development. Thus, the monopoly and resultant expense are likely to remain.

In the same survey, Alice Springs was named the cheapest place for hotel accommodation in the country. Alice Springs is as remote from Australia’s major cities as Uluru. With numerous types of accommodation to choose from, there is no hotel monopoly in Alice Springs.

Mt Gillen's escarpment overlooks the town of Alice Springs, Northern Territory

There is a great deal more to Central Australia than one giant sandstone monolith. While Kata-Tjuta is near to Uluru, to travel solely to these incredible sights significantly diminishes the Centralian experience. Further, these icons of the Red Centre can only remain affordable for tourists when serviced by a vibrant Alice Springs and Central Australian community. By flying in and out of Uluru and not exploring beyond its environs, tourists contribute to a decline in other Centralian locales. In turn, this impacts on the future affordability and availability of Uluru.

But, for their part, airlines “servicing” the region need to look beyond their petty competitions. Qantas, Virgin, Jetstar and Tiger need to temper their knee-jerk reactions to each other’s short-term decisions. There must be a greater understanding that the viability of flying to Central Australia depends on a multitude of inter-related factors. An airline’s business does not operate in isolation. Nobody will fly the routes at all if it becomes too expensive to stay in a hotel when there. A renewed focus on providing a service to the community is vital for tourists, residents, and businesses alike.

Sep 16, 2014

Being Ruled By The Rules

Brent Harvey’s one match ban for a bump on Joel Selwood brought to mind another incident. A number of months have elapsed since the Jack Viney bump occurred but it highlighted a contradiction in the way the general public want the game officiated. On the one hand, players and supporters were appalled that Viney was charged with rough conduct and initially suspended for two matches. In the context of the passage of play, Viney had few options but to contest the ball and, unfortunately, break the jaw of Adelaide’s Tom Lynch. But increasingly the general expectation of society is that players and umpires must participate to the letter of the law. According to this philosophy, Viney’s bump was negligent, contact was high, and the force was medium. He should have been suspended. Similarly, according to this philosophy Harvey should not play this weekend.

Leaving the MCG after Richmond Tigers defeated St Kilda Saints

A common refrain from those criticising umpires is that all supporters expect is for them to be consistent. The impossibility of consistency is quite clearly lost. No two incidents that occur on a football field are ever the same. The events preceding it are different. The actions within the incident have differences. The events afterward are different. Further adding to the differences is the simple fact that each game is different. Some games matter more than others. The teams and players are different. The atmosphere is different. The conditions are different. Clearly, each and every incident in a game of football is unique.

Nevertheless, in a bid to pander to the expectations of consistency the AFL and its umpires increasingly look to the rulebook. They analyse the rules with a legal eye and interpret them as “accurately” as possible. They tinker with the rules to make them “clearer”. Nowhere can this be demonstrated better than with the push in the back rule.

The push in the back rule’s purpose is three-fold – to stop a player being pushed out of a marking contest, to stop a player being pushed into the ground when bent over attempting to collect a loose ball, and to stop a player being pushed as they run, kick or handball. But the subtleties and nuances in this began to create confusion. With an eagle eye, the interpretation for marking contests was changed. No longer could a player have hands in an opponent’s back. This interpretation ignored the facts that it was possible to have hands in the back without pushing, just as it was possible to push in the back without hands. Changing the interpretation and trying to update the umpiring did not improve the confusion nor did it decrease the ire of fans.

Daniel Zinn clears for Barwon Heads Seagulls in their match against Portarlington Demons

At the heart of this contradiction is a simple problem. The application of rules is always subjective. We expect that it is possible to be objective and finite, but it is not. Human judgements must always be made. There is not one aspect of the game where it is possible to be purely objective. Even scoring has an element of subjectivity.

Video review was expected to be a solution. What is frightfully obvious is that it is almost as hard using video replays to determine the “correct” decision as it is in real time. A collective groan is expelled by the crowd each time a review is called for, largely because they know the review will not improve the situation and will prove inconclusive. As an aside, it appears that to reduce ridicule of the flawed system, the video umpire now often confirms the goal umpire’s decision when footage is inconclusive.

This fascination with the ability of the law to be conclusive and finite is having dire consequences. Most obviously in the Essendon supplements scandal. The Bombers have taken ASADA to court, not to argue the substance of the issue, but on a distantly-related legal technicality. At the legal hearing, well-paid Senior and Queens Counsels will argue about a law and its application but not about if Essendon players took illegal substances. To a great many fans of the game, it will be a profound shame if Essendon is able to avoid producing the truth behind their supplements program due to a legal technicality.

Trent Cotchin watches as the umpire bounces the ball, Richmond Tigers vs Carlton Blues

Arguing over specific features of the laws also occurred in the Viney incident. The rules were pored over and analysed in depth. Was the conduct accidental, incidental, intentional, reckless or negligent? Was the impact severe, high, medium, low or negligible? Was the contact to the head, groin or elsewhere on the body? Was there any residual, additional or deductible points? On it went. A great many intelligent people trying to apply an objective system to a subjective situation.

When the Match Review Panel decided on a two match suspension for Viney, howls of protest erupted decrying the death of the bump in AFL football. The precedent set by the MRP would send shockwaves through the competition. Players would pull out of contesting the ball, fearing similar punishment should an accident happen. But precedents are a funny thing – they are only useful until the next precedent is set. A similar incident could happen in the very next round and the MRP could establish a brand new precedent.

Pre-season promises count for little in football

Arguing about umpiring decisions in football has been occurring since young Aboriginal men ran around playing Marn Grook. It will continue for as long as the game lasts. But to improve the level of debate a couple of things must occur.

The AFL, the MRP and the umpiring department should cease pretending that they can legislate and officiate as though beyond human error. All involved should confront this inadequacy, and communicate that their decisions are made with the opinion of a human who may well misinterpret rules and situations. Mistakes should be acknowledged but will never be eradicated.

But on the part of supporters, there needs to be renewed understanding that those officiating are applying objective rules in a subjective situation. Ultimately, the judgement will rest with a human who must be lauded for trying. As supporters, the best that we can hope for is that those adjudicating are truly independent and have the best interests of the game, the players and supporters at heart.

Aug 28, 2014

In The Footsteps Of Pheidippides On The Roads Of Alice Springs

Read the preamble here.

It must be said that Alice Springs is fantastic for running. Mid-winter days are clear and cool. Flat, concrete paths weave alongside the ephemeral Todd River, and clear, undulating trails meander throughout the rocky hills. The views from Anzac Hill and Mt Gillen impress. I would encourage anyone to take a look. We can easily negotiate meals and accommodation. My last long run took me past the Telegraph Station and I set off exploring. I stopped by our new home for sustenance twice. But after 36km, my pains, aches and doubts returned. Again, if I didn’t do the marathon this effort would have been for little.

The dry river bed of the ephemeral Todd River, Alice Springs, Northern Territory

Counting and numbers are a fact of life in the marathon game. For the initiated, my watch told me that I usually ran 4:00-4:15min kilometres. This speed would see me finish a marathon in less than 3 hours. But my two >30km runs told me if I ran this pace I would be at risk of struggling during the latter stages. Some great advice is to ensure that the second half of your race is faster or equal to the first half. To make this happen I had to slow down. For the final fortnight of training, I concentrated on running at speeds 30 seconds per kilometre slower than I was used to. My new goal was to complete the marathon in about 3 hours and 15 minutes.

My pre-race anxiety centred on two things. The first may surprise. People don’t expect Alice Springs to be cold, but the clear skies, low humidity and elevation mean that during winter it is often below 0°C overnight. It warms to around 20°C in the sun, but the cold wind bites. It takes much more energy to keep warm than it does to keep cool, and for this reason I was concerned. From the local Salvos I picked up a jumper and beanie, and I bought new gloves. I thought and re-thought my race attire. The second was fuel. I knew I would need food regularly. Organisers placed a drink station every 3km and we were able to give them food and drink so they would have it for us at the stations. My plan was sound but untried.

I have to sing the praises of Alice Springs once more (again, happy to negotiate meals and a bed, drinks on the Bugler). The running community were so keen to hold a fantastic event, they assisted in any way they could. I called the  running club president and he patiently answered questions. I arrived late to registration the night prior and was met with smiles. People went out of their way on the morning of the race to ensure that a blow-in like the Bugler was comfortable. But I wasn’t. I had to run 42.2km.

The long and lonely road during the Alice Springs Running Festival Marathon 2014

The marathon is best related in chronological fact. In the pre-dawn light we set off and I immediately picked my way through the 42 competitors. As I settled into my 4:30min/km pace, I followed four others. I became a touch emotional due to the relief of finally beginning something I had thought so much about. The first 15km ticked by. The field gradually elongated and I was able to run my own race. I ate at 6km and 12km and told myself it would count later. I was all about running faster in the second half.

I awakened from my running stupor when I noticed I had made ground on fourth place. Dogmatically concentrating on a negative split, I had expected others to do the same. When I realised he was flagging, I told myself not to increase my exertions because it was inevitable I would catch him. Sure enough, I drew level and chatted for a moment. Another first-timer, we encouraged each other before I headed off.

Just over half a kilometre before the turn-around point, the race leader passed by on his way back. I clapped and encouraged him while secretly hoping disaster would befall him. Another guy went by, and then the leading woman. All three appeared to be well in advance of me and I continued to concentrate on regulating my speed.

As previously, I noticed that I was suddenly making ground on third place. Instead of seeing blacktop stretching away, I was seeing the well-worn soles of the leading female. I planned to slow and talk, but two road-trains meant I only offered a few words of encouragement as I slipped by and hunkered down against the trucks’ slipstreams.

Oddly, as I ran into 3rd my anxiety increased. Not wanting to relinquish a podium finish increased the consternation. Mrs and mini-Bugler were on hand to support. I pulled in to the 30km drink station for a quick stretch and some race updates. First and second were a long way ahead. Fourth was not long behind and fifth was a way back. I was going well. But 12km is still a bloody long way to run.

Farewelling the Ross Highway after 37km of the Alice Springs Running Festival Marathon 2014

To my mind, little changed for the remainder except discomfort. I had told myself that half-way in distance is a fallacy, because half-way in effort begins at about 30km. By this stage my left knee was regularly nagging at me and a blister was expanding on my right foot. I tried to adjust my gait. I stopped to stretch on a couple of occasions. But no matter what, I had to keep running.

At 37km the news was as good as I had hoped. Unless I collapsed, third place was assured although I had little hope of catching second. The guy manning the drink station was encouraging, but wasn’t keen to run the remaining 5km. I couldn’t stomach the food and drink that I had prepared.

There was no elation during the final kilometres. No sense of relief. No overwhelming satisfaction of achievement. Only the ache in my knee, the pain in my foot, the exhaustion in my legs and the thought that I still had to keep running. After 41.4km, even 800m felt like a long way.

I feel silly about the congratulations that have come my way. In my first attempt I came third in 3:11:46. I won $200 and I have the bronze medal. I almost caught the guy who came second. The race doubled as the Northern Territory marathon championship. Despite only being a resident for 2 weeks, I am the second best Territorian marathoner in 2014. I have the silver medal.

Crossing the line of the Alice Spring Running Festival Marathon in 3rd place. Relief.

I feel silly because there are stories more incredible than mine. The 33-year-old winner was running his 49th marathon, flew back to Sydney and is flying to Adelaide next weekend for his 50th. He has a goal of running 100 marathons. He runs 14km every day. Incredible. One guy turned 71 on the day and was running his 73rd marathon. Unfathomable. Another man has three kids, is a few years older than me, and at his first attempt ran an amazing time of 3:30 with a cramping hamstring. Impressive. The winners of the 10km and half-marathon ran times I could only hope to. Respect. The winner of the female 10km was 13 years old and finished in a shade over 40min. Wow. A friend of mine had planned to run the 10km, but on a whim in the morning decided to do the half-marathon and she finished 7th. Boom.

I think I could have spoken to every participant and found a story worth telling. And perhaps that is the point. Running has its inherent beauty in its simplicity. You only need a road or a path and a pair of runners and your story will be worth telling. But I am glad to give my legs a rest. And go back to the gym. And ride a bike. Maybe I’ll even play footy again.