EasyJet has told the Scottish Government it is committed to the Highlands and would “consider” expanding its service following fears over the future of air links.
The concern over Inverness-Gatwick flights follows the company’s £20million purchase of rival Flybe’s slots at the London airport.
Flybe currently operates three return flights a day to Gatwick from the Highland capital, with the early morning and late evening flights, beneficial to business travelers and those passengers seeking to connect with long-haul flights.
Transport Minister Keith Brown has met with easyJet representatives in Edinburgh and said: “The removal of the Flybe service next year, which provides around 100,000 passengers with a link to an international gateway, and the business community in the north of Scotland with services allowing them to return from the south east on the same day, could have a detrimental effect on the region’s long term economic development and prosperity.
“Flybe provided early reassurances that the current service levels will continue until summer 2014, when the slots are passed to easyJet.
“Today’s meeting allowed me the opportunity to underline the Scottish Government’s desire to see easyJet operating additional services from Inverness.”
He added: “I welcomed easyJet’s commitment to maintaining their existing capacity between Inverness and London Gatwick and London Luton and their openness to consider more flights from Inverness. easyJet, which is the largest operator out of Scotland, already provides a valuable link to Gatwick and I hope that this can be expanded next year.
“All of this is of course against a backdrop of Westminister applying Air Passenger Duty (APD) on UK domestic airlines at levels which are having a crippling effect on their ability to operate – indeed Flybe cited APD as one of the factors for them pulling out of Gatwick.
“It is clear to me and anyone who sees the damaging effects that the punitive levels of this tax burden is having on airlines, airports and the Scottish economy – that the powers to apply APD be devolved by Westminster immediately. I will be demanding an early meeting with Danny Alexander to make this point yet again.
“Northern Ireland is already benefitting from the devolution of these powers - it is simply wrong to deny Scotland the ability to put a sensible and fair regime in place of APD, and avoid any further damage to Scotland’s economy.”
An easyJet spokeswoman said: “As part of our continued commitment to providing Scotland with easy and affordable air links we are meeting with a wide range of stakeholders to listen to and understand their views.
“easyJet has agreed to acquire the slots Flybe currently use at Gatwick airport for use from March 2014. This transaction is still conditional until it is approved by Flybe’s shareholders.
“In the meantime, easyJet will look at a range of options for these slots including the routes currently served by Flybe. easyJet’s summer 2014 timetable is announced in a few months’ time and further route information will be available then.”
Moray’s parliamentarians, Angus Robertson MP and Richard Lochhead MSP, have written jointly to both easyJet and to the UK’s Secretary of State for Transport urging protection of the critical Inverness to Gatwick flights following Flybe’s sale of the slots to Easyjet.
They say the Gatwick flights are a vital strategic airlink for Moray and the Highlands with significant numbers of both business and leisure passengers using the route.
Mr Robertson MP said: “We are committed to doing everything in our power to help safeguard the crucial Inverness-Gatwick air links, which support significant tourism related to our iconic food and drink products, our environment and the many other attractions offered in Moray.
“We have emphasised to the Transport Secretary that while the people of Moray and the Highlands are supporting the development of Heathrow through their taxes it is only fair to get something back in terms of protection for air links that are vital to our area.
“The route provides a vital link for Moray businesses to reach out to customers and to do business both nationally and internationally with the host of global brands, whose home is in Moray. We have further impressed upon the Transport Secretary the importance of protecting the Inverness-Gatwick corridor to sustain and further develop these vital industries and our wider local economy.”