Martyn McLaughlin: Island Scots air travel issues

Flights to and from Scotland's islands may be the stuff of romance, but the cost bites. Picture: Contributed
Flights to and from Scotland's islands may be the stuff of romance, but the cost bites. Picture: Contributed
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WITH some of the most expensive air tickets per mile anywhere in Europe, family ties are at risk of being severed, writes Martyn McLaughlin.

On 3 June, 1936, a plywood biplane took off from the scrub of Aberdeenshire’s Kintore airfield on a giddy journey towards the unknown. The De Havilland Dragon Rapide carried with it eight VIPs, among them Aberdeen’s lord provost, as it left the mainland behind on its course 60 degrees north. Passing over Fair Isle, it circled the majestic, Stevenson-built South Lighthouse before dropping off a copy of the Aberdeen Press & Journal to Alex Ingram, the lighthouse keeper.

Lerwick is hundreds of miles ' and pounds ' away from the mainland.

Lerwick is hundreds of miles ' and pounds ' away from the mainland.

It was the first time the island had received a newspaper on its day of publication, but on a day rich in pioneer spirit, the Rapide continued north, gliding across the water and above the sandstone hulk of Sumburgh Head. When, a few minutes later, it reacquainted itself with terra firma, a crowd hundreds strong cheered. The maiden journey of the first ever air route to Shetland had arrived safely.

The Press & Journal’s man on board prepared a front-page dispatch for the following day’s edition. Through a mixture of excitement and relief, his report declared the event to be “the final blow to the isolation of the Shetland Islands”.

Eight decades on, the rapid expansion of commercial flight ensures the archipelago is well linked to the mainland. Yet in 2015, air travel remains a luxury for many in Scotland’s most remote communities, who are forced to make the 12-hour sea crossing from Aberdeen, given the only alternative method of travel is prohibitively priced.

If the cost of holidaying at home is a long-standing gripe of the average Scot, spare a thought for the folk on the Old Rock, who are faced with some of the most expensive air fares anywhere in Europe, mile for mile. After years of griping, social media has harnessed this discontent into a potent and purposeful campaign. A Facebook group set up by islander Scott Preston in protest at Loganair’s fare structures has attracted nearly 15,000 members from Shetland, Orkney and the Western Isles, many of whom relate the eye-watering cost of getting to and from the rest of Scotland and further afield.

One striking illustration highlighted a total bill of £448 for the 298-mile trip between Sumburgh and Glasgow Airport, comparable to the £472 one would have had to pay on the same day to travel the 5,891 miles separating Aberdeen and Bangkok. A even shorter flight, the 85-mile trip from Sumburgh to Kirkwall, came in at £154, some £83 more expensive than a return flight from Lisbon to the Azores, a journey of 850 miles.

Such fares also come at great expense to the public purse. In the past year, NHS Shetland has spent £2.33 million on flights for patients and accompanying staff, a sum that amounts to nearly 5 per cent of the health board’s annual budget.

In response to the online campaign, Loganair has committed to extending a compassionate discount scheme for islanders who require urgent flights for emergencies and bereavements, on top of the existing Air Discount Scheme (ADS), a Scottish Government initiative providing a discount of 40 per cent on core fares.

It is, however, wholly insufficient. Oil workers may be able to afford the prices being asked, but in a place that has long taken pride in sending its sons and daughters off to see the rest of the world before, hopefully, the pull of home one day beckons them back, routine journeys remain beyond the reach of hardworking families.

For Shetlanders who have made their life elsewhere, such as my wife, the levy is even higher. They are asked to pay the equivalent of the cost of a family holiday in southern Europe simply to visit relatives. For example, if we wished to fly from Glasgow this weekend to Sumburgh and return the following Friday, even the basic fare rate would cost us £795.52 via Flybe, Loganair’s franchise partner. Granted, this does include in-flight Tunnock’s caramel wafers, but once you throw in the extraneous costs – taxis, a few lunches and the extravagance of a glossy magazine – you are talking the best part of £1,000 on travel alone.

This is by no means a recent problem. In 1981, one well-kent adopted Shetlander noted that it was “cheaper to fly to Italy, spend a week there, and to fly back again” than visit the northern isles. That barb came from Jo Grimond, the veteran MP who served Shetland for more than three decades. “The ordinary family to whom this travel ought to have brought a new era of satisfaction cannot make use of it,” he said.

His political successors now fight the same battle, but history suggests it will not be easy to lower the punitive fares. There is no prospect of competition on the routes and Derek Mackay, the transport minister, has admitted that, because Loganair is a commercial enterprise, the Scottish Government’s ability to cap costs is curtailed.

The economics of Loganair’s island services are complex, but the load factor on its flights is 65.8 per cent, meaning they are routinely two-thirds full, a level of uptake that allows the airline to make a profit of approximately £8.30 per passenger. This is a modest dividend, but last year, the firm posted overall profits of £6.06m, a 39 per cent year-on-year increase, while turnover rose to £87.5m. That suggests there is room to improve the load factor via the use of a more innovative pricing strategy, one that will also allow islanders to fly at short notice without paying an arm and a leg.

Mr Mackay and the Scottish Government, meanwhile, must not only reverse the cuts made to the ADS scheme in recent years, but find the resources to extend it. At the same time, they should review the hefty charges imposed by the state-owned Highlands and Islands Airports Limited at its island hubs, which exceed those of many privately owned airports.

Otherwise, perpetuating this historic economic discrimination risks inflicting long-term damage on isolated communities and discouraging exiles and ordinary Scots alike from visiting some of our country’s most beautiful islands.

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