The operator of Sumburgh Airport needs to balance its budget and will not compromise on security or safety, which is why consideration is being given to introducing parking charges.
That was the message today from Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd (HIAL) chairman Grenville Johnston at an open day at Sound Hall in Lerwick to hear views about the controversial issue and other matters.
A decision on charges is unlikey before November but Mr Johnston and his board colleagues were left in no doubt that it would be a deeply unpopular move.
Mr Johnston insisted that the decision had not yet been made and said he was aware of public feelings about it. He said: “It’s really not decided, we’re talking about it, and that’s all we’re doing.
“We’re more than well aware that the idea is not a popular one – it’s not popular on the mainland, either. No-one likes paying for anything. However, £1million has been taken from us in subsidies and we have to look at ways of balancing the budget.
“I understand that there is a very wide populace in Shetland and many people live off the ‘main road’, so to speak, so that if you’re getting public transport you have to get to the public transport first. I understand that very much and we’ve definitely heard that message in a big way.
“But, we do have a lot of motor vehicles sitting at the airport, sometimes for a long stay … The problem is we’re living in very difficult times.
“I am not prepared to compromise on security or safety; we expect our paying public want to travel securely and safely and they wouldn’t be very happy if that service was not maintained.”
The issue of car parking charges first arose in 2009 when it was announced £1 million in government subsidies was to be cut from HIAL’s budget.
Other airports currently facing the imposition of car parking charges are Kirkwall and Stornoway, while parking charges are already in place in Dundee and Inverness.
Today’s meeting was attended by several members of the public who took the opportunity to find out more about the proposal.
Jessie Williamson, who lives in Lerwick, said she felt it was important to come and have her say.
Mrs Williamson said: “I don’t feel the Shetland community should be any more disadvantaged than it already is. It’s particularly people who are travelling to hospital, not just the patients but family members.
“With cancer patients for example, they might go away for much longer than they expected so apart from the trauma of dealing with that you have to worry about your car sitting at Sumburgh Airport and what it’s costing.
“I’m sure plenty of people in Shetland can afford it, but there are vulnerable people in the community who can’t.”
HIAL managing director Inglis Lyon said the company “need to consider very carefully [its] position”.
He said: “There are two things we’ve heard today, the first is an appreciation from people of the position the company is facing currently and will be facing when the financial review is released in November.
“The second thing is that having not paid for charges so far, they’re not keen on the idea of having to start paying and they would be keen for us to look at other options.”
He was insistent that some members of the community would be exempt from the charges: “If we were to introduce charges, and that’s not been decided, vulnerable members of the public would not be disadvantaged.”
Shetland MSP Tavish Scott said he hoped the message that people in Shetland do not want the charges would be put across.
Speaking before the meeting, he said: “The board needs to be reminded that Sumburgh Airport is Shetland’s gateway to our lifeline air services. The cost of flying is already high enough, without adding to it by imposing car parking charges on top.
“Unlike major airports like Edinburgh, which has excellent public transport services, Sumburgh has only a limited bus service to Lerwick which runs to a fixed timetable regardless of whether or not flights are late.
“For most travellers, taking the car to Sumburgh is the only practical option open to them. Hopefully, having travelled to Shetland, board members will be able to see this for themselves, but the more people that go along and make the point, the harder it will be for the board to ignore Shetland’s opposition, when it comes to make its decision on the car parking charges.”
Mr Scott also voiced his concern that the board was not planning to meet members of the Sumburgh Airport Consultative Committee while in the isles.
He said: “There’s not much point in having a local consultative committee, if the board refuses to meet it when it is in Shetland. I hope that, even at this late stage, common sense and courtesy might prevail and a meeting be set up.”
Although a formal meeting was not held, head of the committee Jimmy Smith was at the open day to question HIAL board members. He said he was “not hopeful” about the outcome.
Mr Smith said: “I feel they’ve made their minds up and this is all a PR exercise. I’m not hopeful, but I hope I’m wrong.”