Tavish Scott: Scots fliers may benefit from the ‘Bearded One’

Sir Richard Branson. Picture: Getty
Sir Richard Branson. Picture: Getty
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VIRGIN Atlantic is synonymous with the Bearded One. Richard Branson is the brand, the pizazz and revels in stunts such as crossing the Atlantic in a hot air balloon. Usain Bolt and Mo Farrah advertise Virgin. Johnnie Peacock will surely be next.

Speed through the air rather than on the Olympic track is now the issue. British Airways has taken over BMI. That means there will be less competition for Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen passengers en-route to London. The consequences are stark for travellers. Fares will go up and schedules will suit the airline rather than being kept passenger-focused by competition. None of this is good news for Scotland.

The one ray of hope is that BA must give up 12 valuable slots at Heathrow. These are dedicated for the next three years to the Anglo-Scottish routes. The European Commissioner for Competition will decide who gets these slots. No, I do not quite understand why either but that is apparently the system.

So what is in the Scottish interest? As Steve Ridgeway, the Virgin Atlantic boss, explained in the Scottish Parliament last week, a domestic feeder service would allow Heathrow connections into the Virgin world network. It would provide direct completion for BA. Virgin would be a new player in the Scottish market with new ideas and a new approach. All of this sounds positive.

But would Virgin retain these Scottish connections after three years? Then, it could use the Heathrow slots for flights to more lucrative destinations using bigger aircraft. I asked the Virgin commercial director this and was assured that if the airline wins these Scottish slots it is in it for the long haul. That is the crucial Scottish dimension. Our government must extract a long-term commitment.Virgin is competing with Air Lingus for the Heathrow slots. Michael O’Leary, Ryanair’s abrasive boss, has been trying to buy Air Lingus for years to no avail. The many bureaucrats and regulators that he has insulted and attacked owe him no favours. Nor has Ryanair showed any interest in flying to Heathrow. It would seem likely that the London slots would be part of some clever trade and the Scottish dimension would be irrelevant.

Splitting up the slots and awarding some to both companies would not help. Short term competition would be great, but after a period Scotland would be left with just BA and the Scottish slots would be used for destinations outside the UK.

Many would prefer Scottish airports to have direct links to more global destinations. That makes sense, but we are unlikely to have enough to avoid the need for the hub airports of London, Amsterdam or Frankfurt.

So customer choice and competition on fares and schedules is in Scotland’s interests. The Scottish and UK governments should be at one on this and lobby the European Commissioner together. That would keep the Bearded One happy.

• Tavish Scott is Liberal Democrat MSP for Shetland