AN AMBITIOUS plan could make Tamworth the first city in Australia to open its borders to international students.
Major pilot-training school CAE is tipped to temporarily shutdown at Tamworth Airport within the next month, because COVID-19 restrictions have essentially locked their clientele out of the country.
But the biggest employer at the airport, Sigma Aerospace, is not prepared to let another business in the precinct go without a fight.
Directors Matthew and Renee Wheatley have joined forces with CAE to push for international pilot students to travel direct to Tamworth and quarantine at CAE, and they have Member for New England Barnaby Joyce onside.
"If CAE flight school ceases flying in a month's time it will have a huge effect not only on us as a maintenance provider, but the airport and Tamworth as a town because we have these international students who spend money here," Mr Wheatley said.
"We are lobbying the federal government to release a model that would allow the international students to come here, in the same format as the [NRL team] NZ Warriors did when they came out."
If the plan comes off, Tamworth will serve as an experiment for how to get the country's international business economy back on track.
Sigma Aerospace employed more than 100 staff at the airport, but work has slowed since aviation giants Qantas and Virgin Australia took a knife to flight schedules amid the pandemic.
Tamworth Regional Council's income from the airport has taken a $1.7 million hit this quarter and a budget review noted CAE "struggles in the current environment".
The city is in a unique position to trial the model that could see the first international students enter Australian borders since they closed, with the CAE facility at the airport completely self-sufficient and secure.
All meals and cleaning services are provided in-house, the apartments are separated for each student and there are exercise facilities on-site appropriate for a 14-day quarantine.
The school trains an average of 100 pilots each year, and are now down to about 30 onsite, CAE Tamworth base manager Edward Williamson said.
"Obviously with the borders being closed it has impacted our business significantly not being able to bring future customers in the doors," he said.
"Basically our cadets would have finished their course and we're looking at suspending operations at the end of June until the borders can be reopened.
"The impact on the economy would be significant, with job losses, staff being stood down, local re-fuellers at the airport and even retail.
"I can't see why it couldn't work, the model we want to base it on is the NZ Warriors coming into Tamworth, it's proven it can be done."
If the plan didn't work and CAE left Tamworth permanently it would have a huge impact on future growth, Member for New England Barnaby Joyce said.
"We have to make this thing work, unfortunately COVID-19 has made things difficult that were once very easy and one of the more affected industries are airlines," he said.
"The Warriors was a short-term project, but this would be long-term as COVID-19 is something we are going to have to live with, you won't get rid of it.
"One of the reasons I intend to go to Canberra next week is to work out what hurdles we need to cross and how to start crossing them."
On Wednesday, the stakeholders will meet in Tamworth to flesh out the concept, before Mr Joyce said he would take it further in discussions with Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton.
The city already lost one pilot-training school in March, when Virgin Australia announced it would pull out of a $30 million deal with Tamworth Regional Council.