The battle for Scotland’s skies looks set to be a fierce one. Consumers are likely to benefit from cheaper air fares, but there are question-marks over whether business and tourism will receive any boost at all.
Last week, flight operator Air Scotland announced its inaugural routes, including flights from Glasgow to Barcelona, Palma and Tenerife, and between Edinburgh and Barcelona, Palma, Alicante, Malaga and Fuerteventura.
Existing low budget carriers Ryanair and easyJet fumed on the sidelines, while Dhia Al-Ani - the owner of Glasgow tour operator Luxuryclass and the managing director of the new airline - staked his company’s claim as Scotland’s first low-budget airline.
However, nobody was more annoyed than Tom Dalrymple, the chairman and managing director of Globespan Group, which announced back in November that it would launch a fleet of 737-300 aircraft from Prestwick and Edinburgh this April. Globespan used that opportunity to announce Flyglobespan.com as "the first Scots budget airline".
Flyglobespan.com will offer services in high season (April to November), flying to Palma, Nice, Rome and Malaga from Prestwick International, with prices from 49 one-way, including taxes. The east coast is served by travel direct from Edinburgh to Nice, Barcelona and Malaga.
Air Scotland is likely to be airborne before Flyglobespan.com, but it is leasing its aircraft from Electra Airlines, which is registered in Greece, Globespan might have the upper hand as its aircraft are UK-registered. Yet, discarding the little spat over which is in fact Scotland’s very first budget airline, the activity in the skies has got everyone talking.
Tom Dalrymple says there is a gap in the market for his company, "Flyglobespan.com will offer direct, scheduled, affordable air connections to popular sunspots not previously available from any Scottish airport."
This development has been welcomed by the managing director of Glasgow Prestwick airport, Tom Wilson, who says: "We have worked long and hard at this airport to win low-cost services to these destinations, and I’m particularly pleased that it is a Scottish company that has taken the initiative to operate the routes."
Globespan Group, which is based in Colinton, Edinburgh, ran a service between Edinburgh and Nice last summer with occupancy rates of 80 per cent.
Air Scotland has the backing of Donal Dowds, the managing director of BAA Scottish Airports. "We have long recognised the need to share the risk airlines face when starting a new service," he says, " which is why we’ve set aside some 60 million for Scottish route development over the next five years.
"We’re delighted Air Scotland has chosen to base itself at Glasgow, which has been the country’s busiest international airport for decades."
Air Scotland prices will start at about 25, but, unusually for a low-cost operator, there will be two classes of seating, Thistle - premier seating - and Tartan - economy seating. The economy fare is divided further into three fare types to cover optional extras, including meals, drinks or seat upgrades.
Moira Findlay, a spokeswoman for easyJet - which last year bought the former British Airways no-frills airline, Go - says she believes competition in Scottish skies is a good thing, but questions Air Scotland’s claim to be a low-cost carrier.
"I don’t really see why they are offering different seating options, because that is not what a no-frills airline does. I wonder if they are starting in this sector and have ambitions to compete elsewhere. There is a huge demand for air travel from Scotland, but it is expensive to operate, which is why we only fly domestically from Scottish airports, apart from our route to Amsterdam.
"Scotland is on the fringe of Europe and it does cost airlines more to fly there, so it will be interesting to see what happens when the two new carriers are both up in the air, as they seem to be competing with each other on similar routes."
Kathryn Munro, a spokeswoman for Ryanair, believes the Irish carrier has more right to lay claim to being Scotland’s national airline than either of the two new contenders.
"Scotland should be getting behind companies that are bringing business and tourism to Scotland. We don’t need another charter airline."
Munro points to the business that Ryanair has brought to Scotland in the past year.
"On our Prestwick to Oslo route, we have seen 33,000 passengers fly from Norway to Scotland in nine months, and these are people travelling at weekends who would not have visited without our service. The same is true on our Frankfurt Hahn route, which saw 80,000 Germans come to Scotland in the last year. These are the kind of statistics that Scotland needs and that is what Scotland should be getting behind."
A spokeswoman for VisitScotland says the organisation will be looking for opportunities to work with the two new carriers, but that it appears the focus for most of the flights will be on outbound business.
"Where there is strong potential to bring business to Scotland we will work together, but, as far as we are concerned, the future of direct access is to bring tourists inbound. This should fit with the companies concerned because it is in their interests to have two markets performing well."
Munro agrees that Scotland needs growth in its airline sector, but not on any terms.
"Scotland needs to increase its direct flights, but it needs to be more choosy about which destinations it flies to. All these cheap operators will just cancel each other out, and will not bring any new business to Scotland."
An example of how business can be brought to Scotland should be provided by yet another new route. Germanwings, a low-cost carrier from Germany, will operate a direct flight to Edinburgh from Cologne starting at the end of March. The low lead-in flight fare should be around 13, including taxes.
VisitScotland’s spokeswoman says they are looking forward to good reciprocal business on this route, "because Germany is a very important and successful market for Scotland. This is an example of how inbound tourism supports Scottish tourism."
David Field, the business development manager for BAA Scottish Airports predicts that the competition in the low-cost market can only increase.
"A number of people in aviation now see this as the way the market is going. Low-cost no-frills air travel is what the public wants. If you look at where there have been successes in the aviation world in the last few years, it is the combination of profit and growth that has marked out the budget airline as the way ahead.
"Scotland, in particular, can sell fares here in terms of bringing people in as well. After London, Scotland is the most attractive destination in the UK by a long way, and all the tourist boards will tell you this."
"I think Scots will love the new flights and Scottish businesses are set to benefit as well."
Compare the fares
Routes: Glasgow to Barcelona, Palma and Tenerife. Edinburgh to Barcelona, Palma, Alicante, Malaga and Fuerteventura
Sample Fare: 25
Routes: Glasgow Prestwick to Palma, Nice, Rome and Malaga. Edinburgh to Nice, Barcelona and Malaga
Sample Fare: 35
Routes: Aberdeen to London Luton. Edinburgh to Amsterdam, Belfast, Bristol, East Midlands, London Gatwick, London Luton, London Stansted. Glasgow to Amsterdam, Belfast, Bristol, East Midlands, London Luton, London Stansted. Inverness to London Gatwick, London Luton
Sample Fare: Edinburgh to Amsterdam 51.70 return, before tax
Routes: Aberdeen to Dublin. Edinburgh to Dublin. Glasgow Prestwick to Bournemouth, Brussels Charleroi, Dublin, Frankfurt-Hahn, London Stansted, Oslo Torp, Paris Beauvais
Sample Fare: Glasgow Prestwick to Oslo Torp 71.98 return, before tax
Routes: Edinburgh to Cardiff, East Midlands. Glasgow to Cardiff, East Midlands
Sample Fare: Edinburgh to East Midlands 60 return, before tax
The top ten holiday destinations for Scots
4. United States
5. Cyprus/Gibraltar/ Malta
7. Irish Republic