Islanders rally behind call to keep Scotland's most scenic air service

ISLANDERS on a remote Hebridean outpost have called on the Scottish Government to safeguard the future of their island's iconic air service.

The two-minute flight between Barra and Benbecula is regarded as one of the world's most scenic air journeys but islanders believe a proposal by Western Isles Council to stop subsidies for the flights could jeopardise the route.

In a letter sent to Holyrood by the Isle of Barra Transportation Committee - on behalf of the 1200-strong community - finance minister John Swinney and new transport minister Keith Brown are asked to consider directly providing the air service rather than fund the links through the council.

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The service between the islands faces the axe, partly because half the passengers are only doing the trip as sightseers.

The Western Isles Council's Transport Committee has recommended the annual 212,000 subsidy for the service, currently operated by Loganair, should be withdrawn.

Council bosses confirmed the subsidy could go but said it was only one of a raft of proposals to find 5.3 million in savings from the next budget. A final decision will be made in February.

The subsidy works out at 200 a passenger.

The service lands on the scenic Cocklestrand Beach in Barra, opposite the former home of Whisky Galore author Sir Compton Mackenzie. It is is the only beach where scheduled air flights happen and was featured in the Martin Clunes' film Staggered.

The Barra service is integrated into Loganair's timetable between the Hebrides and the Highlands. The untouched Uist to Lewis flights cost 425,000.

According to the Isle of Barra Transportation Committee, withdrawing the service would mean the council is using Public Service Order funding for purposes other than was originally intended. The letter also says the council failed to evaluate the additional cost implications or the impact on health services.

The potential bid to abandon the air service comes as the Scottish Government is poised to commit 4m for two new-build Twin Otter planes to safeguard the daily service to Barra.

The Canadian-manufactured aircraft are one of a rare commercial type able to land on the island's tidal sands runway.

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Legally the council has to give six months notice to axe the air contract.

Western Isles MSP Alasdair Allan said he was "staggered" by the decision.

Nationalist Mr Allan said the flight from Benbecula was only one of two services to Barra - the other is from Glasgow - and if it was axed it would threaten the future viability of the airport.

Western Isles MP, Angus MacNeil, who lives on Barra, added: "People use it to go to hospital and others use it to get to Glasgow on business, particularly seamen going via Benbecula, as the direct Barra-Glasgow flight is often more full than not."I hope the wider council will reverse this decision which undermines our most fragile island communities."

A council spokesman said: "There is no withdrawl of service. We are listing choices and that is one of the possibilities going out to consultation. There's a whole lot of proposals because of the financial pressures we are under."