Final preparations are underway for the start of Australia’s new Antarctic air link to support the Australian Antarctic programme.

The newly painted and modified Airbus A319, to be used in the Australian Antarctic Division’s air service from Hobart to Antarctica, is in Hobart this week for ground crew and pilot training.

Project Manager, Charlton Clark, said it is important that the ground crew become familiar working and operating around the aircraft in Hobart at temperatures around 20ºC, before they do the same work on ice in Antarctica at −20ºC.

“This week’s training is a key element of our risk management approach to the introduction of the air service,” Mr Clark said.

“The A319 will also undergo further regulatory checks before the initial flights commence later this year.”

Mr Clark said the air service will modernise and increase the flexibility of the Australian Antarctic programme. However, as this is a new air service into one of the most hostile environments on earth, weather conditions will have a major influence on its operation, as they do on any Antarctic operation.

“While we have scheduled two flights to transport scientists and expeditioners south in December, the final schedule for the months ahead will be driven by the weather,” Mr Clark said.

The air service from Hobart to an ice runway near Casey station will operate over summer, with an estimated 10 to 20 flights per season to be conducted once the system is fully operational.

The intercontinental air service will complement the existing use of ski-equipped C212 aircraft within Antarctica and, combined with the shipping service, will improve access to the frozen continent.

Mr Clark said the team working on the 4000m Wilkins runway, 70km south-east of Casey station, would travel by ship to Antarctica later this month to finalise preparations for the service to begin.

In 2005 the Australian Government announced funding of $46.3m over four years to establish an air service between Australia and Antarctica.