Airlines are still expanding despite their tax moans, writes Alastair Dalton
While the way the railways operate can make them seem like a parallel universe, the workings of the aviation industry often feel equally opaque.
The key thing to understand about Scottish air travel is its underlying, long-term growth – despite the recent spate of route closures. Until then, both Edinburgh and Glasgow airports, the country’s biggest by far, were handling record numbers of passengers.
Aviation has bounced back from successive major setbacks, from the World Trade Centre terrorist attack in 2001 to the recession of a decade ago.
The two airports’ route networks, particularly Edinburgh’s, have significant expanded since. The capital has four airlines competing on routes to New York and its environs. There are also currently four daily flights between Edinburgh, Glasgow and Middle Eastern hub airports, offering one-stop travel as far as Australia and New Zealand.
And in June, the first direct flights will take off between Edinburgh and Beijing in what could prove a new landmark for Scotland’s global air links.
The odd thing is, some airports and certain airlines have continued to portray the outlook as grim because of the impact of air passenger duty (APD), whose halving the Scottish Government has said it has been forced to shelve.
The tax is only charged on flights departing from UK airports. Cutting it by 50 per cent would save a passenger £6.50 on a short-haul trip and £39 on a long-haul service.
Some airlines have complained bitterly about APD, such as Ryanair, in justifying cutting most routes from Glasgow but expanding in Edinburgh. Others have been far more muted, with Jet2, also towards the budget end of the market, telling me it had not been a factor in its growth plans.
Despite APD, with the level of Middle Eastern and transatlantic competition from Edinburgh, you might think it unsurprising some would fall by the wayside.
As The Scotsman revealed two weeks ago, Etihad will close its route to Abu Dhabi in October, three years after launching it in competition with Qatar to Doha, and Emirates’ twice-daily flights between Glasgow and Dubai. The airline has told me APD was not a factor.
In the case of US flights, it is new entrant Norwegian feeling the pressure. The budget airline took on United, American and Delta’s New York City services, albeit by flying to Stewart, 90 minutes’ drive to the north. It also flew to two airports in Connecticut and Rhode Island, but axed one route last month and will suspend the other in October. Norwegian blamed APD for the first cut, but in confirming the second on 4 April, attributed the second to “lower demand”. Then an hour later, it added that APD had “demonstrably been dampening demand”, despite going on to admit demand had been no higher on the two US routes it is also cutting from Ireland, where there is no APD.
To cap it all, the airline said last week its Edinburgh-Stewart route would be increased to daily next winter compared to three flights a week this winter. It had also been reduced from daily last summer to four weekly flights this summer.
Despite such turbulence, those booking the tickets remain optimistic. As Ken McLeod, president of travel agents’ body the Scottish Passenger Agents Association, told me: “Edinburgh has a huge number of destinations in its portfolio, and will continue to grow and prosper with its wide variety of carriers.”