Air Tax: Scotland’s direct air link to China faces axe

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Scotland's only direct flights to China were today in doubt after Hainan Airlines stopped taking bookings for its Edinburgh-Beijing route from September.

Travel agents and Edinburgh Airport linked it to the Scottish Government’s failure to cut air taxes.

The first flight from Beijing arriving at Edinburgh Airport last June. Picture: Ian Georgeson

The first flight from Beijing arriving at Edinburgh Airport last June. Picture: Ian Georgeson

However, that was disputed by the Scottish Government.

One aviation source told The Scotsman: “They are stopping the service in August. It is almost certain it’s final as passenger loads have been poor since the start.”

The move will also affect the airline’s route to Dublin, since the four flights a week served both the Scottish and Irish capitals.

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It comes less than a year after the service was launched last June.

Aviation development firm Routes Online said: “Hainan Airlines in a recent inventory update closed reservations for Beijing-Dublin-Edinburgh-Beijing and Beijing-Edinburgh-Dublin-Beijing routing, for travel on/after 1 September.

“The airline operates both routing twice weekly each on Boeing 787-9 aircraft.”

Edinburgh Airport said it was waiting to hear from the airline whether flights would resume next summer.

A spokesman said: “We understand this is a suspension of the route over the winter. We’re bitterly disappointed and there will be no let-up in our efforts to maintain Scotland’s only direct link to China and the Far East – but having the most expensive aviation tax in the world doesn’t help.”

Business Traveller magazine said: “Flights of this length and complexity are expensive to operate – they must overfly Russia, so royalty payments are involved – and if the yield was insufficient it will not come as a surprise the route is dropped.”

Ken McLeod, president of the Scottish Passenger Agents’ Association (SPAA), which represents travel agents, said: “While there may be many reasons why Hainan Airlines has decided to stop taking bookings on its Edinburgh route after 1 September, I am sure the tax burden placed on the aviation industry will have had a role to play, even though their scheduling was not ideal.

“SPAA has very real concerns the Scottish Government’s decision not to proceed with planned tax breaks will impact on routes out of Scottish airports, as we have already had other airlines cite the air passenger duty issue as a reason for not being able to sustain routes.”

Scottish Conservatives transport spokesman Jamie Greene said: “Before the dust has even settled on Nicola Sturgeon’s U-turn over reducing air departure tax, the future of a key long-haul route has been thrown into question.

“This should serve as a stark warning that if we insist on having one of the highest aviation tax regimes in the world then we run the very real risk of losing vital economic and tourist connections.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “We are disappointed Hainan has suspended the Dublin and Edinburgh service as part of its winter schedule and we hope they will return for summer 2020 when passenger numbers are likely to be higher.”

But the spokesperson added: “Air passenger duty rates remain the same as those at Manchester where they operate a service and Hainan were already aware that rates would not be changed this year, so it would be wrong to attribute this to the changes to APD policy.”

Edinburgh Airport had described the launch of the flights 11 months ago as “momentous”. Chief executive Gordon Dewar said at the time: “It is a route which has immense opportunities for our countries, from tourism and business to culture, education and more. This is something the city has worked towards for a number of years and we are delighted to see this day finally arrive.”

And, welcoming the start of the service, business, innovation and energy minister Paul Wheelhouse said: “Securing direct links between Scotland and China is one of our key priorities for route development.

“This new direct Beijing-Edinburgh route is an exciting first chapter in direct air connectivity between Scotland and China. The Scottish Government and our agencies look forward to working with Hainan Airlines and Edinburgh Airport to make this route a great success.”

They had hoped to capitalise on increasing spending by Chinese visitors to Scotland, which went up five fold from £7 million to £36m between 2007 and 2016.

The number of visitors from China trebled to 41,000