By NEIL RIDDELL
A FAMILY of four faces a credit card charge of almost £50 for booking to fly from Sumburgh to London on the Flybe website, it emerged this week.
The surcharge for using a credit card to book flights on the website of the budget airline, which takes over the Loganair franchise later this month, is applied at a rate of £3.50 per person per flight, with a minimum charge of £5.50 for booking a one-way journey.
That means that a family with two children looking to book return journeys from Sumburgh to any other Flybe destination via a Scottish airport using a credit card – the best means of protection for getting money back should the airline go bankrupt – would be subject to a total of £48 in charges for a single transaction.
Meanwhile, Loganair announced this week that it had abandoned plans to introduce a 15kg weight limit for baggage on flights when Flybe takes over the franchise for flights between Sumburgh and the UK mainland.
The limit had been due to be imposed when Flybe takes over the service on 26th October, but following local concerns highlighted in The Shetland Times last week Loganair has decided to begin with a 20kg limit for a trial period, just under the 23kg allowed by British Airways.
The 20kg limit – over and above which passengers will be charged a flat fee of £10 – brings the flights into line with Flybe’s standard luggage allowance for economy passengers.
But Loganair remained under fire from irate customers over the credit card charges this week as the company appeared to rule out any change to that policy. As well the rise in credit card charges, a new £2 charge for using a debit card to book flights is also being introduced, along with a levy of £6 for reserving a seat on the flights.
ZetTrans chairman Allan Wishart said the charge was “far too much” and should only be related to each transaction, rather than each leg of a journey being booked, adding that normally retailers would absorb the cost of such charges.
Shetland MSP Tavish Scott said the rethink over baggage limits was at least a step in the direction from Loganair, but hit out at the company over the credit card charges and pointed out that islanders would not expect to be charged when they walk into a shop on the street.
He said: “If they could now deal with the credit card and debit card surcharges, we would be really making some progress. In fairness to British Airways, the cost you could find on the website was the complete fare, including taxes and all other surcharges.
“When you [book with] Flybe, you may be able to find a cheap fare, but by the time you add on the surcharges, and if you are foolish enough to want to book a seat, it can go up enormously. I must say it’s not a transparent system, it’s basically misleading the way in which it will now operate.”
Mr Wishart and Mr Scott are now looking to set up a meeting, along with their opposite numbers in Orkney, with Loganair in order to discuss a range of issues, including fares and charges.
Several members of the public have spoken to this newspaper in recent days and raised various concerns over the changeover to Flybe. In a letter published in today’s Shetland Times, Joanne Saunders said she had booked two return flights from Sumburgh to Manchester on the Flybe website and was charged £28 for using a credit card, which she described as “a complete rip-off”.
Loganair sales and marketing officer Susan Blacklaw defended the company over the charges. She said: “Using an online booking requires an acceptable card as a form of payment. Debit cards are cheaper to use than credit cards and in fact a Visa Electron card has no charge at all.”
Others pointed out that any prospect of cheaper air travel in and out of Shetland following the arrival of Flybe was now looking pretty slim. In a sale advertised in the national print media this week, one way prices showed Sumburgh as the most expensive of any of the destinations being offered at discount by Flybe, albeit excluding the 40 per cent air discount scheme (ADS) reduction.
A single flight from Aberdeen to Sumburgh was priced from £43.99, while the cost from both Glasgow and Edinburgh to the isles was listed as from £61.99, the latter for flights of a distance of just over 300 miles. In contrast, travellers can fly almost the length of the UK mainland from Southampton to Inverness – a distance of almost 500 miles – for £52.99.
Destinations on the continent are a good deal cheaper than the lifeline service connecting Shetland to the UK mainland, with flights from Manchester and Birmingham to six cities in Belgium, Germany, Italy and France all advertised as being available from less than £40 each way.
Scalloway resident Caroline MacDonald said she was hoping to take advantage of cheaper fares but found that she was quoted a price of over £160 for a return journey to Inverness, around 40 per cent more than she would normally have expected to pay under BA.
She said she was also confused by the introduction of mandatory photo ID for flying to destinations within the UK, because she has an old-style driving licence and does not own a passport. Loganair passengers, according to the company, can apply for a “Citizen” card with photo ID at a cost of £5, but some have argued that flying from Shetland to other parts of the country is no different to travelling by train or bus, transport on which no ID is required.
Ms MacDonald, 57, said her son, who lives in Inverness, has been looking at travelling north to visit her in the coming months and is regularly quoted cheaper prices for weekends in Germany and the Czech Republic than to come to Shetland.
She said there appeared to be a great deal of confusion about the changeover and she is concerned that islanders will be getting a “substandard” service when Flybe takes over. “I don’t know who to phone, and they’re quoting me prices I’ve never heard of,” she said. “It’s sad that we have to get cheap airline and not get the quality of service we deserve.”
Andrew Miller, 25, a born and bred Shetlander who now lives in Edinburgh, was hoping to travel home to visit his family for Christmas but was put off by the price of flights when he checked in early September. The cheapest fare he could find, with the ADS reduction and excluding additional charges (including the mandatory credit/debit charge), was around £180 return for any of the three days either side of Christmas Day, which he described as “laughable”.
He said: “Having been away from Shetland for close to two years now, I’ve always been put off by the price of flying. I stayed in Edinburgh [at Christmas] last year and was looking forward to finally visiting family and friends this year. However, I was shocked to see the prices for my supposed discounted flight, fully three months in advance. Now, not only am I being quoted laughable prices, but I’m no longer able to use my BA clubcard points.”
There have always been huge disparities in the price of flights depending on how early you book and there is a substantial amount of anecdotal evidence that many flights, particularly to the central belt, are going to and from Sumburgh with a substantial proportion of empty seats. But Ms Blacklaw defended the prices and declined to comment on whether flying half-empty planes made environmental sense.
“Loganair has a fare structure in line with most other airlines, [which] offers a pricing policy which operates on the basic principle of the earlier you book the lower the fares,” she said. “Seats are subject to availability and are sold on a first come, first serve basis. As passengers take advantage of the lower fares available and the flight begins to fill up, the fares will increase due to demand. On occasions we will also offer various short term special offers or seat sales.”
Flybe itself is referring all media enquiries to Loganair, which it said was “better informed” about issues relating to flights in and out of the isles. But chief commercial officer Mike Rutter did issue a statement welcoming their decision on luggage limits and stressing that commercial policy decisions relating to Shetland were being taken by Loganair, not Flybe.
He said: “Flybe is very pleased that Loganair are bringing their baggage allowance into line with our own. In the early days of our franchise partnership, passengers need to know that there is consistency between our two airlines. Flybe would like to clarify that the vast majority of decisions about commercial policy have been and will be taken by Loganair.”
• Meanwhile, the company has confirmed that it will again operate scheduled services between Sumburgh and Bergen in summer 2009. The two-day service linking Shetland with Norway, which Loganair said was used by 1,400 passengers in 2008, is to be expanded and will now operate on Saturdays, Tuesdays and Thursdays from early June until the end of August next year. The flights can be booked through Flybe’s website.
Loganair chairman Scott Grier said: “We, of course, were aware of the important historical and cultural links between Shetland and Norway and we knew of the great disappointment that was felt when the Smyril ferry service between Shetland and Norway was discontinued last year, but the high demand for our air services exceeded our expectations.”
The move, which includes a new link between Bergen and Kirkwall, was described as “excellent news” by Highlands and Islands Airports (HIAL) managing director Inglis Lyon. He said: “These links to Norway will provide opportunities for business and tourism connections to be strengthened under Loganair’s Flybe franchise … and help to maintain the positive growth trends we have achieved at the airports in recent years.”
• Editorial comment, page 9