By DAVID MOASE
COFFS HARBOUR'S relationship with cut-price carrier Virgin Blue was reinforced yesterday with the announcement of a direct weekly service to Melbourne. Tourism and the conference market are expected to be the big winners from the decision of the city council and the airline to enter into a partnership to run the service for 12 months in order to evaluate its long-term viability. Saturday flights will begin on November 6 using 144-seat Boeing 737 jets. Mayor Cr Keith Rhoades said the announcement was a 'feather in the cap of Coffs Harbour Airport'. "It is a shot in the arm for the Coffs Coast and it is a shot in the arm for all the people who have had faith in this facility," he said. "The economic benefits are particularly significant. "This service allows us to tap into the Victorian market and the forecasts suggest this will bring increased numbers of visitors to the Coffs region." Cr Rhoades said the new service had come about as a direct result of the success of Virgin Blue's Coffs Harbour-Sydney service and made it clear he thinks the weekly flights to Melbourne are only a start. "If we can get people from the Victorian market, and at the same time get a lot of the Victorians living in and around this region to use that service to commute back to Melbourne, we will then look at possibly putting on a second service midweek," he said. "That would give us the opportunity to delve further into the conference market, with people coming up on Saturday, spending Sunday doing leisure activities, having their conference over two days and then heading home on Wednesday." Virgin Blue chief executive Brett Godfrey announced the new service during a speech in Melbourne yesterday. "Coffs Harbour was our first regional New South Wales city and it is safe to say we are very happy with the large number of people choosing to fly with us, be it for business or leisure," he said. Coffs Harbour Airport manager Bevan Edwards said the new route continued the growth of business at the airport, which saw passenger numbers increase by 12 per cent in the past financial year. "Virgin Blue has had a tremendous impact on the airport and helped us out of recession after the Ansett collapse," he said. "We have been able to draw people away from other forms of travel and all the airlines operating from here are doing well." A launch internet fare of $99 one-way for the Coffs Harbour-Melbourne service is available until September 26 for flights between November 6 and December 11. Virgin Blue said its regular fare would start from $149. The airline has also announced additional services to and from Sydney between September 24 and October 10.