Flybe’s obstructive and unhelpful attitude has become one of the biggest disincentives for people seeking to bring bands and musicians to the isles, according to Shetland Arts and a number of music promoters.
Music development officer Bryan Peterson and several promoters who have spoken to The Shetland Times said they were very frustrated that the airline appeared to be adding to the logistical challenges of bringing acts to Shetland.
Mr Peterson said whether or not instruments would be allowed on flights was “the luck of the draw” and promoters “won’t know until it’s too late” in most cases. It leaves them with “a real headache” and leads to some musicians choosing not to come to the isles at all.
“Having to explain the situation to professional musicians who fly all over the world with no problems is embarrassing, and many understandably avoid coming to Shetland altogether,” he said.
It means promoters have to make arrangements to store the instrument on the mainland and to find a suitable equivalent in Shetland in case the airline refuses to check the instrument in. “It’s bad enough with an acoustic guitar, but there’s not much chance of hiring a kora or hurdy gurdy in Shetland.”
“Nine times out of 10 there’s no problem, but Flybe won’t guarantee that musical instruments will be allowed, even in the hold,” he continued. “You can book in advance, give them the weight and dimensions and they’ll tell you that it ‘shouldn’t’ be a problem. But when you’re standing at the check-in being told your guitar won’t be travelling with you, it certainly is a problem.”
Drum instructor Joy Duncan recently brought Senegalese kora player Seckou Keita and his backing band up for a successful gig at Clickimin Bowls Hall. But the concert was very close to not taking place after she was told point blank that Flybe was unwilling to take Keita’s instrument, an African harp made out of cat gut, on their flight from Edinburgh.
She said it left her “pacing up and down the kitchen like a pregnant father waiting for his wife to give birth” before she was finally able to persuade the airline to take the instrument on the condition that she took legal responsibility for any damage caused.
Because the Seckou Keita Quintet were playing in Edinburgh the night before their Lerwick date, using NorthLink Ferries wasn’t an option and the type of instruments they use do not exist in Shetland. “I had to tell management that if this doesn’t go ahead I have to cancel the whole event. This had been organised for six months, I’d spent £1,400 on flights and they just had to go on.”
She stressed that Loganair’s head of customer services Graham Everett had been very helpful when she had eventually got through to him. But she was told that if she was considering taking acts up again in the future then she should use the boat. That, promoters say, is not a viable option in many cases because touring acts are often in the middle of busy tour schedules and cannot afford to take three nights out in order to play one date in the isles.
Promoter Davie Gardner has also had his difficulties with the airline when taking up a number of different acts including a Norwegian film crew and, most recently, bringing top American singer-songwriter Steve Earle to these parts for a gig next weekend.
He said: “I’ve thankfully not had one we can’t solve so far, but not without a struggle and the same situation exists with Steve Earle. I don’t know what’s happened. We did have some problems with British Airways but not so many as we’ve had with Flybe.
“There’s enough difficulty getting [Shetland] on the tour circuits; it’s very, very difficult to do that if you can only do the last date of the tour all the time – it is definitely a problem that seems to have only increased with time. It might have happened if BA was still involved, it’s maybe a coincidence but it certainly seems to have increased since Flybe took over.”
Mr Peterson said the problem with check-ins invariably occurred on the mainland and that staff in Shetland “do all they can to help, but it seems their hands are tied”. Having recently booked veteran British group Showaddywaddy to play here next Easter, though, he was “assured that the situation is being addressed”.
Shetland MSP Tavish Scott said he had raised the handling issue with franchise operator Loganair and he was pleased to learn that the company has now replaced handling staff at Aberdeen with their own workers. “I’ve no doubt that will improve things for everyone coming from Aberdeen. I hope music promoters running into those kinds of problems will be able to benefit. I’m afraid it’s the usual thing – if the folk actually work for a company that’s running a service then it is much easier to sort these things out.”
Mr Gardner said that when it comes to supporting what is hoped to be a vastly increased number of visiting artists once Lerwick’s £12.2 million new cinema and music venue opens in early 2011, the airline’s attitude would be increasingly important.
“I think if they’re going to be doing it on a regular basis in terms of supporting Mareel, there’s definitely going to be problems at some point. It’s a lifeline service and part of that lifeline you would like to think would be supporting the social infrastructure as well as the economic and genuine lifelines.”
He added: “If it’s going to happen in Shetland then we need to be able to get folk in and out timeously, more often than not by flying rather than by boat. There’s lots of issues and I would welcome sitting around the table with Flybe to see what can be done to make things more stable for us. If they are fixable every time, why is it such an issue to start off with?”
Loganair had not responded to a request for comment before The Shetland Times went to press yesterday afternoon.