THE airline Flybe has sold its take-off and landing slots at London Gatwick airport to Easyjet for £20m – sparking fears for air links to the Highlands.
• Sale part of airline’s cost-cutting drive with 600 workers also made redundant
• Easyjet under no obligation to use slots to fly to Inverness from London Gatwick
There is no guarantee Easyjet will continue the services currently provided by Flybe to Inverness, which involves morning and evening flights designed around business travellers and people connecting to long-haul flights.
Business leaders and politicians have expressed concern for the future of these “vital services”.
Fraser Grieve, the Highlands and Islands manager for the Scottish Council for Development and Industry (SCDI), calling for urgent steps to safeguard the flights, said: “Flybe’s decision highlights the vulnerability that regional routes into London face as a result of a lack of capacity at Heathrow and Gatwick Airports and the financial value of these slots.
“The air connections to and from Inverness are vital economic links and the move to Easyjet will likely result in both a loss of service and a lack of competition on the route.
“The UK’s leading international gateways must be able to accommodate the economic needs of the whole of the UK.
“Oil and gas services and food and drink in the north are two of the UK’s leading exports and they must be able to reach overseas markets. Tourists and investors must also be able to get to the north of Scotland.”
Inverness MP Danny Alexander, who has made Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin aware of the economic importance of maintaining the route, said co-ordinated action is needed to protect the strong air links between Inverness and Gatwick.
Mr Alexander, who has also talked directly to Flybe, Easyjet and the Highland Council, said: “These connections are absolutely vital for the Highland economy, and this announcement will clearly cause uncertainty for local businesses and the staff involved.
“They connect global investors to our local economy, enable local businesses to grow and support our tourism sector too.”
“The fact that this change will not take effect until the end of March next year does give some time to resolve the issues.
“It is clear that the astronomical increases in landing charges at Gatwick has hit Flybe hard.
“Last year’s Civil Aviation Authority investigation changed nothing, but we need to press Gatwick to think again in the light of the damaging economy impact.
“There is clearly an opportunity for Easyjet to strengthen its Inverness to Gatwick services, but keeping early morning and late evening services will be critical for business, as will the ability easily to connect onto international flights.”
He added: “I welcome Easyjet’s positive commitment to building on its Inverness connections, as well Flybe’s commitment to maintaining its other services.
“Long-term stable connections to a major London airport are vital for the Highlands, and we will need to work closely together locally to achieve that outcome.”
Flybe said the deal was subject to shareholder’s approval and it would continue to operate all the slots until March 2014.
It operates 19 flights a week between London and Inverness with connecting flights continuing to the likes of Benbecula, Kirkwall and Stornoway.
The sale of the airline’s 25 slots is part of a cost-cutting programme for the airline - about 600 workers have been made redundant and pilots have agreed a 5% pay cut.
Flybe serves a number of destinations directly from its Gatwick hub including Belfast, Guernsey, Jersey, Newcastle and has a three times a day service connecting Inverness Airport with Gatwick.
The airline has accused Gatwick’s owners of trying to squeeze smaller airlines out of the airport by increasing fees.
In a statement, they said: “No business can swallow such a massive increase in such a short period of time and it is with real regret and some anger that we have made this decision.”
Jim French, Flybe’s chairman and chief executive, added: “We have to accept the ugly reality that Gatwick simply doesn’t want smaller, regional aircraft at their airport.
“With the absence of a regional aviation strategy and the Government’s penalistic and ludicrous policy of charging air passenger duty (APD) on both legs of a domestic flight, I’m afraid it’s inevitable that high frequency services from the UK’s regions will ultimately be squeezed out of Gatwick, as they have been from Heathrow.”
“Flybe will work with our airports across the nation to ensure the UK’s regional passengers don’t get left in the cold.”
The deal with EasyJet is expected to be completed in July and they will take over the slots in March 2014.
A spokesman for company said: “The slots will transfer from summer 2014 and will allow easyJet to provide additional frequencies on popular existing routes from Gatwick as well as add new destinations across the UK and Europe.”
EasyJet currently operates flights between Inverness and Gatwick, but not as many as Flybe. It said it will review the routes but there is no obligation for it to maintain them.
EasyJet’s purchase will bolster its presence to almost half the slots at Gatwick, its biggest base, where it already has more than 41% of runway space.
A spokesperson said: “EasyJet is committed to continuing to provide Inverness with easy and affordable links to London. EasyJet already provides up to three daily flights to Gatwick and Luton airports.
“The slots will transfer from summer 2014 and will allow easyJet to provide additional frequencies on popular existing routes from Gatwick as well as add new destinations across the UK and Europe.
“EasyJet will look at a range of options including the routes currently served by Flybe. EasyJet’s summer 2014 timetable is announced in in a few months’ time and further route information will be available at this time.”