Jonathan Hinkles: Loganair offers lifeline to the islands in the battle for its own existence

Volcanic ash; a year in Qatar; flying British troops into a Gulf War blackout in Basra; some colourful emergency missions; encounters with Sir Freddie Laker and Richard Branson, and a diplomatic fracas in a remote corner of Kazakhstan. I trust you’ll forgive my presumption that, in 27 years, I’d seen every challenge the airline industry could hold; yet after the last three weeks, also comprehend how wrong I could be.
Boarding on Barra in better times. Picture: Stefan Auth/imageBROKER/ShutterstockBoarding on Barra in better times. Picture: Stefan Auth/imageBROKER/Shutterstock
Boarding on Barra in better times. Picture: Stefan Auth/imageBROKER/Shutterstock

I’m sure everyone in our hard-pressed emergency services is feeling just the same, if indeed they even have a moment for such reflection. We’ve worked closely with the Scottish Ambulance Service in the last ten days to convert Loganair aircraft into air ambulances. The first is “on task” from this weekend, putting our crews into the front line by flying in Covid-19 patients in need of critical care from the islands.

I’m heartened that we can do something truly meaningful to help the national effort. Both the SAS and Loganair teams have risen to the task brilliantly – and the Civil Aviation Authority have been superb too. Our Engineering and Flight Ops folks have worked flat out to meet a timeline I could never have demanded of them. In a further sign of the Loganair spirit, many of our pilots have volunteered to fly these vital missions.

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Even so, our role of maintaining lifeline links to island communities remains unchanged. Whether it be Islay or the Isle of Man, we carry great responsibility on our corporate shoulders. If you’re reading Scotland on Sunday in Shetland, receiving chemotherapy in Stornoway, opening a birthday card in Benbecula or flying to a hospital appointment in Glasgow, Loganair will have played a part in making that happen.

Our days are now spent contending with sagas that we’d never imagined. Can we get a prototype ventilator on to a flight south in three hours’ time for urgent testing? Will cash-strapped airports stay open for our scheduled flights? The looming issue is to keep facilities open for Loganair’s planes, and our wonderful team has even set up a temporary terminal at one airport to be certain of keeping lifeline island flights running.

As we work to keep our team as safe as we can, we’re also battling to understand what this pandemic means for our business. Put more bluntly, we’re battling to ensure we’ll still have a business. It’s vital yet by no means assured, for alongside many other airlines, Loganair will be seeking government support to stay airborne. The financial impact has been enormous, and I never imagined an existential threat could develop in such little time.

After safety, my greatest responsibility is to the people of Loganair. They’re a super group, and I’ve hated planning and then breaking the news that we have to furlough half of the team.

Most will be alternately working and then furloughed for a month at a time, spreading the burden and keeping our pilots, cabin crew and engineers within the aviation safety recency rules to fly again just as soon as there is a need. Their months out will be tough, and I can only hope many will take up voluntary work so that some good can come of all of this.

We’re three weeks into this crisis, which will define society as a whole – and Loganair’s business – for years, if not decades, to come. Less than a week before it fully broke, the UK’s largest regional airline, Flybe, collapsed, presenting us with opportunity and challenge in equal measure. I don’t doubt we’ve a long road still ahead of us to deal with it all, and to map out what our future really looks like.

Sleep has become an expendable commodity between vital tasks like air ambulance and Royal Mail missions, the survival of our business, and keeping our team up to date as best we can through these impossibly difficult times. Not that I’m complaining; those in our NHS and emergency services have it far tougher. I just haven’t had the heart to admit to my mum in our evening calls how little time is left for sleep. The one saving grace of self-isolation in North Yorkshire is that she hopefully won’t be reading this to find out.

Jonathan Hinkles is the chief executive of Loganair