Taxpayers ‘should fund new flights to China, India and Russia’

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PUBLIC money should be used to subsidise more direct flights from Scotland to China, Russia, India and Brazil, the country’s two main opposition parties have urged.

Both Labour and the Conservatives yesterday urged SNP ministers to set up a dedicated pot of cash to tempt airlines to fly routes direct to the new global economic powerhouses.

They claim such links would be vital for Scottish firms hoping to do business in regions of high growth.

A Chinese delegation is expected in Scotland early next year to discuss the possibility of improved links between Scotland and China, following First Minister Alex Salmond’s visit to the world’s second largest economy earlier this month.

Ministers say they are pressing the EU to relax their guidelines on subsidising such air routes, after a similar fund run by the previous Lib-Lab Scottish Executive fell foul of EU laws.

But opposition parties say a fund which is compliant with EU law could commence immediately.

The calls come amid growing concern about Scotland’s air connections after British Airways’ parent firm announced earlier this month that it would be taking over BMI. It means that BA is now the sole carrier from Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen to Heathrow, the UK’s biggest international hub.

While families and businesses in Scotland can fly direct to the US, Canada and Dubai, many other long-haul destinations to the Far East, Asia and South America, are only available via hub airport such as Heathrow or Schiphol in Holland.

Opposition leaders say direct links to emerging nations should now be prioritised to allow businesses more efficient connections to and from Scotland.

Labour’s transport spokesperson, Elaine Murray, said: “Emerging economies like Brazil, Russia, India and China are going to be tomorrow’s powerhouse economies, and so we need to get in early.

“Scotland is a world-leader in products like premium food and drinks, renewable energy and video games. We have products and ideas to sell to the world. But if we want foreign companies to buy Scottish then we need first-class transport links to emerging markets.”

Tories said they too backed a successor to the old Air Route Development Fund, and called on ministers to find a way to make it compliant with EU law.

‘Better connections’ following China visit

Scottish Conservative finance spokesman Gavin Brown said: “The SNP claim they cannot operate the air route fund because it falls foul of EU rules. However, there is now a strong consensus that an EU compliant successor could be developed to help boost tourism and the economy.

“What is required is the political will to make it happen.”

Ministers say they are hopeful that Mr Salmond’s recent visit to China will lead to better connections, with an aviation delegation from China expected in Scotland early next year.

A Scottish Government spokesman added: “We have also consistently argued there is need for a state-aid mechanism which would be effective in supporting our aspirations to improve Scotland’s international air links.

“The current EC guidelines severely restrict the amount of aid that can be given and to which airports.”