By NEIL RIDDELL
FLYBE and Loganair have agreed to significantly reduce credit and debit card charges for flights between Shetland and the mainland following a sustained public campaign led by The Shetland Times, but local politicians are now calling on the operators to make further concessions.
From Sunday 23rd November the airlines, franchise partners who have a monopoly on the routes in and out of Sumburgh, will charge a flat fee of £4 per passenger per booking for credit cards and there will be no charge for using a debit card, returning the charges to those levied by previous franchise operator British Airways.
The new terms match those called for in a petition, signed by almost 500 Shetlanders, raised by this newspaper after numerous complaints from readers and politicians.
In what has been a public relations disaster for Flybe and Loganair, it had been charging £3.50 per passenger per flight with a minimum charge of £5.50 for credit card bookings and £1.50 per passenger per flight for debit card bookings, meaning a family of four flying to London and back faced eye-watering additional charges of £56.
In a separate move, Flybe announced that it was capping the credit card booking fees charged to those customers using the company’s connections service to one outbound charge – irrespective of the number of onward connections made – and one inbound charge irrespective of the number of inbound connections made.
And in a further announcement, Loganair said it would be reversing a £4 increase in the cost of flights in and out of the isles, which was imposed in May following a rapid increase in the global price of oil.
Chairman of Shetland’s transport partnership ZetTrans Allan Wishart said the announcements were “definitely a step in the right direction”, though there were inevitably going to be further problems following the recent changeover from previous franchise operators BA.
“There is still a difference in ethos or operating philosophy between the two but I think that’s been narrowed a bit today,” he said. “There’s still quite a number of issues, probably in a way more of a minor nature but they will come to the surface now that we’ve got [some of the charges] out of the way, but overall I’m glad that they seem to have taken on board the concern.”
Mr Wishart said it was likely that Loganair had been taken aback by the strength of feeling from members of the public over a host of additional charges since Flybe took over the franchise on 26th October and he said there had been a large number of people contacting ZetTrans to raise various issues.
He added: “The thing that still concerns me a bit is the [Flybe] website. I think it needs clarifying, because there is this issue that you almost feel compelled to take a seat, compelled to take insurance. You should be able to opt in [rather than opt out].”
Shetland MSP Tavish Scott also welcomed the changes, but said more needed to be done to remove the extra charges added by Flybe when it took over the booking system for the flights, adding that the extra charges of the “supposedly low cost operator” had pushed the cost of flying up instead of down.
He said: “The news on the credit card charge changes … is a step in the right direction, unless of course you are booking a single flight and not a return, but I still feel that the charge is too high and I cannot see why, when a family of four makes a booking with a single card transaction, they have to pay the charge for each passenger.”
Announcing that it was backing (Continued on page two) (Continued on page two) down on the charges, ahead of his appearance before Shetland’s external transport forum this week, Loganair’s newly-appointed chief executive David Harrison said: “Loganair have been serving the Highlands and Islands for more than three decades and our success has not only been because of a first class product but because we listen to our passengers.
“We are very conscious that we operate lifeline services and that’s why Loganair is choosing to fund the price difference between the Flybe charge and the Loganair charge.”
He continued: “Our adoption of a Flybe franchise brings enormous benefits of connectivity and marketing, bringing many more inbound business and leisure passengers than our previous arrangements brought. These changes will hopefully allow everyone, both passengers and media, to concentrate on these benefits.”
But if he expected the announcements to guarantee him an easier ride before forum members in Islesburgh on Wednesday afternoon, Mr Harrison was to be sorely disappointed as he and marketing director Susan Blacklaw were grilled on a range of problems islanders had encountered since the changeover.
When asked by outgoing Sullom Voe harbourmaster Jim Dickson whether those who have already paid the extra card charges would now be given a rebate, Mr Harrison responded: “No they can’t. It’s not possible to do.”
He said there were no plans to remove the £6 per passenger charge for choosing a seat on each flight, which also formed part of The Shetland Times petition, but stressed that it was an “entirely optional” extra.
“We do not expect many of our passengers would take advantage of this,” Mr Harrison said, adding that the computer system would automatically ensure that passengers who book together are seated together even if they don’t reserve a seat and if that did not happen then they should simply ask a check-in attendant.
This newspaper was contacted by Trondra woman Stella Winks earlier this week and she said booking the emergency seat on a return flight to Aberdeen, because she is more than 6ft tall and finds the other seats have insufficient legroom, set her back an additional £37.
She felt the charges were “disgraceful” but said she was more upset by the response from Loganair when she phoned to complain, describing the attitude of the employee she spoke to as “patronising, obtuse, obstructive, unhelpful and insulting”.
Mr Harrison said plans were now afoot to reduce the £15 each way charge for reserving an emergency seat to £6 and that the change should be in place within a few weeks.
But Mr Scott said he still believed the seat charge was unjustified: “I cannot see how it costs the airlines anything to make such a booking. It is really just a tax on families and other groups and it must go. The bottom line is that we should not be paying any more now than we paid when the flights were run as a BA franchise.”
Mr Harrison told the forum he understood that some people would be asking why the separate £4 reduction in fares was not greater given the extent to which worldwide oil prices had fallen in recent months, but the reason was that Loganair buys its fuel in pounds sterling, which has weakened substantially against the dollar over the same period of time.
Forum member and councillor Jim Henry said he was furious that when he tried to change his date of travel at short notice, he was told at the Flybe desk in Edinburgh that only Loganair workers – who operated 9-5 working hours – could change an air discount scheme (ADS) booking. He ended up having to pay more than £200 for a single flight and asked Mr Harrison if he could have his money back.
The chief executive said he could not comment on individual bookings but that the nature of ADS meant the number of people who were authorised to change flights was limited. “It’s your administrative problem – you fix it,” he was told by councillor Jonathan Wills.
Local chairman of the Federation of Small Businesses James Smith pointed out that it was £60 cheaper to fly to London using BA’s website this week – Loganair retains a codeshare agreement with the company – and he encouraged people to use the service, which up until now has not been widely advertised.
ADS still applies to the portion of the journey between Shetland and the Scottish mainland when booking through BA and Mr Harrison said he accepted the service had not been well-publicised recently but that an advertising campaign was now in the offing.
VisitShetland manager Andy Steven said it was regrettable that Flybe’s website did not offer the same information on flight arrivals and departures that BA did. “We’ve gone backwards, I think, and we need to find ways to improve that.”
But forum members were happier to learn of Loganair’s ongoing initiative to market Shetland as a tourist destination for spring and autumn breaks. Mr Steven said: “They are increasingly doing more than they did some time ago and I welcome that.”
ZetTrans are keen that any members of the public who have further concerns in the wake of the changeover contact their offices in Lerwick on (01595) 744868 or send an email to ZetTrans@shetland.gov.uk.
Editorial comment, p.9