By JOHN ROBERTSON
The next airline to operate Shetland’s inter-island flights must provide enough experienced pilots to avoid the recent problem where only one was left to fly the Islander planes.
Councillors agreed on Wednesday that the new contract from August must require enough pilots to call on who are trained to land on the tricky airstrips in Foula, Fair Isle, Skerries and Papa Stour.
Shetland South councillor Rick Nickerson, who represents Fair Isle, said it was “not acceptable” that Directflight had just one pilot last month instead of three because if he had fallen ill the isles would have lost their valuable service.
The SIC is putting a new three-and-a-half year public service contract out to tender next week, timed to coincide with the same length of contract offered by Orkney Islands Council. The hope is that savings can be made if one airline serves both island groups but the infrastructure committee heard on Wednesday that the two councils had failed to put together a joint single contract because it proved too complicated, although they might manage it next time.
Airlines seeking the contract will be asked to provide two bids – one using the council’s two Islanders and the other using their own planes. The current subsidised service from Tingwall Airport is run by English-based Directflight using the council’s brand-new Islander bought two years ago for £600,000 and the second-hand Islander.
When the council bought the second plane as back-up, rather than leasing it, the controversy was smoothed over by claims that it would help pay its way through use by the council and from charters to tourists, particularly those arriving off cruise ships. But such activity has never happened and usually only one plane is in use.
There was also talk at the time of more frequent flights, restarting a service to Unst and Fetlar and becoming involved in air ambulance work. Convener Sandy Cluness even said he wanted a scholarship fund set up to help Shetlanders train as pilots and aviation engineers.
At Wednesday’s meeting councillor Frank Robertson said Directflight had no success with mounting round-the-islands charters because it was difficult to tie in with cruise ship arrivals. SIC transport head Michael Craigie said the council’s arrangements for the use of its aircraft had also proved cumbersome and what was being planned for the future would be “much less constraining” for the operator.
Councillor Gussie Angus was unhappy about the failed promises and said the SIC needed to state very clearly that the extra services and income from the back-up plane were never going to materialise.
But the council has not given up on the dream yet and airlines tendering for the new contract are at least going to be asked what extras they might envisage providing, perhaps covered by a separate mini-contract.
A working group of councillors and officials recently toured the isles served by the planes to hear what improvements the communities want from the new service contract. One of the main points made concerned the problem of too few available seats, particularly in summer, which may be stunting tourism and can make it hard for locals to travel at short notice. The airline which wins the contract will be given more freedom in its use of planes to ensure demand is met. In recent years the annual number of passengers has ranged from 4,476 to 5,480.
Another problem arises from the number of seats that are booked on the eight-seater plane but not used. Mr Craigie said the number of “no-shows” could be as high as four or five on one flight, often due to service companies making bookings but deciding not to go if there is a danger of workers being stuck in the isle. In future they might have to pay in advance and receive no, or only a limited refund.
Mr Nickerson called for a standby system to be brought in so that people could travel if booked passengers did not turn up. Other improvements planned under the new contract are online booking and payment through the airline’s website and possibly also through the council’s website.
Mr Angus hoped the SIC could repair its damaged relationship with Loganair so that it might tender for the contract and use its Orkney-based Islander maintenance team and pilots. Loganair did not tender in 2006 despite having provided the inter-island service in Shetland for over three decades since it began. Currently the council’s planes are serviced in Cumbernauld.