The head of the influential Airports Commission has been invited to meet north air campaigners in Inverness to discuss the future of regional access to the UK’s hub airports. Inglis Lyon, Managing Director of Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd (HIAL), and Fraser Grieve, Highlands and Islands Manager for SCDI, have written to Sir Howard Davies, the Chair of the Airports Commission, which was appointed by the UK Government to consider the future of air capacity in the UK. The Commission is expected to publish its interim findings at the end of this year, with a more thorough report due after the 2015 General Election.
In a letter to Sir Howard, Inglis Lyon said: “HIAL operates a network of eleven regional airports across Scotland, serving some of the most remote regions of Scotland. For these communities air travel is the only means of long distance travel.” Even Inverness, the capital of the Highlands, is “relatively isolated”, according to the airport executive, while the rail network is “patchy, expensive and slow”, he said, with no motorways and only limited stretches of the main artery into Inverness – the A9 – has dual carriageway. In fact a road journey to Glasgow or Edinburgh typically takes in excess of three hours.
“In our more remote island locations, the challenges are even more acute. For these communities, air travel provides a vital social and economic lifeline, and an essential means of connecting people and businesses. It is absolutely essential therefore that we maintain a diverse network of routes from our airports, including access to the UK’s main business centres,” added Lyon.
A recent campaign to maintain access between the Highlands and London Gatwick, following the sale by flybe of its Gatwick slots has further shown the importance of air links to the UK capital. Although campaigners had secured a positive deal for Inverness Airport from easyJet, which bought the slots, Lyon said the sale had “raised wider concerns about regional access to London’s main hubs, an issue which has become more urgent in recent years as capacity constraints and rising costs have seen the number of regional airports with access to Heathrow and Gatwick decline.”
Lyon also highlighted the recent SCDI report which found that 50,000 passengers are lost to other Scottish airports from Inverness because of the lack of a direct link to Heathrow. The lack of such a link “damages our business competitiveness and attractiveness as a tourist destination, he said, adding: “It is our hope that the Inverness - Heathrow service can ultimately be restored. However, given the capacity constraints at Heathrow, it is unlikely in the short term. Our aim, in the meantime, is to support those alternative hubs, Gatwick and Amsterdam, to ensure that connectivity from the north of Scotland is not further eroded.”
Scotland’s regional airports handled more than 5,000 extra passengers in June according to latest figures from HIAL. Passenger numbers across the network, which includes eleven airports, increased in June to 126,453, a rise of 5,282 (+4.4%) on June 2012. Sumburgh and Wick John O’Groats continued their strong run of growth, with both airports recording a significant upturn in business as a result of increased oil and gas traffic, while Kirkwall also reported increased traffic.
Additional passengers on the Glasgow route saw numbers increase at Islay and Campbeltown, where demand was also boosted by the introduction of new Sunday flights. However, at Inverness, numbers fell slightly as a result of the loss of summer flights to Southampton and Dusseldorf, although there is evidence of increasing numbers of German visitors using the Inverness to Amsterdam route, which enjoyed strong growth in June 2013, as did services to Bristol. Numbers were also down at Dundee, Barra, Benbecula and Stornoway, the result of well documented route closures, and at Tiree, where demand for the Glasgow route fell.
“HIAL has recorded growth in every month of the first half year, and our northern airports have been performing extremely well, largely as a result of the energy boom. However, overall market conditions remain challenging, not least in our more remote island airports and at Dundee, where recent changes to the schedule have had a significant impact on connectivity,” explained Lyon.
“Nevertheless, we remain focused on attracting new business across our airports, even in these challenging times. HIAL’s airports support some of Scotland’s most remote communities, most of which are heavily reliant on air travel as a means of connecting communities and transporting goods and services. It is essential that we continue to provide a route network that supports social mobility and fosters economic growth,” he added.