The man behind the campaign for a better, cheaper air service to the isles is convinced that there will be a positive outcome from a Thursday night meeting with operators Loganair.
But Scott Preston, who intends to continue campaigning after he moves south with his wife Phoebe later this summer, says it will be unrealistic to expect all the campaign aims to be met in one meeting.
He said that three main issues to tackle with Loganair were cost, reliability and consideration for families attending funerals – a family could easily spend a month’s wages in flights to and from the mainland.
Northern Isles MSPs were also to meet the Scottish Transport Minister today (Tuesday) in Holyrood to emphasise Orkney and Shetland’s lifeline air service must be “cheaper, more reliable and efficient”.
Mr Preston said today: “First and foremost the biggest concern of the campaign is the price and costs. The first thing to be identified is where these costs come from.”
He said that the only cost in the public domain – airport charges showed Sumburgh costing £17 per passenger compared with £13 at Aberdeen. Other costs, such as fuel, would hopefully be clarified at Thursday’s meeting.
The campaigners are also focusing on reliability, with numerous stories of frustrating and expensive delays caused to passengers, with delays frequently leading to missed connections.
One quotes a “scandalous” experience with Flybe, which does the ticketing to Scottish Islands and franchises the flights to Loganair, wanting £372 to change flight times for two adults who had already spent £300 booking the original return journey.
Another passenger returning to Shetland from Aberdeen was bumped off her flight after being told it was overbooked and that her seat had been sold to someone else. The next flight she could get was 24 hours later, and this one also ended up being delayed for an hour.
Another account was given of a flight from Aberdeen to Shetland where eight “volunteers” were sought who would be willing to take a later flight, owing to overbooking.
Mr Preston said: “It’s becoming clear that reliability and delays are a big, big issue and becoming more so. We need to find out why.”
The third main objective is some way of reducing costs for people attending funerals or family emergencies. According to Mr Preston, one family were recently quoted £1,000 – a month’s wage for some people – for a flight to attend a funeral in the East Midlands.
“We need to see if there is some way we can have consideration for immediate family members to travel in or out of the islands.”
Mr Preston acknowledged that Loganair is a commercial operation and has to turn a profit to survive. “It’s a complex issue and we have to manage expectations and realise this one meeting is not going to resolve everything,” he added.
Orkney and Shetland MSPs Liam McArthur and Tavish Scott say they have been inundated with complaints over the current service in recent days. Today, they are to “press” the Scottish Government to invest in the Air Discount Scheme and put pressure on Flybe and the airports over cost, reliability and service.
Speaking before the meeting Mr McArthur said: “Passengers using these lifeline routes have become increasingly dissatisfied with the service they are receiving. Reliability is now such a problem that those who can are booking flights a day before they need to travel in order to avoid the risk of missing connections or important meetings. That situation is just not sustainable.
“To add insult to injury, the decision by Scottish Ministers to withdraw ADS support for anyone travelling on business means that islanders are paying more for a less reliable service.
“As if this wasn’t bad enough, new security screening arrangements at Edinburgh airport are leading to lengthy delays at peak periods, with the risk of flights being missed.
“Not all of this is in the gift of the Minister to resolve, but much of it is. Ultimately, these are lifeline air services for our island communities. Tavish and I, therefore, will be looking for a positive response from Mr Mackay when we meet him later today”.
Mr Scott said: “Overnight I have had more complaints about the Flybe service. People say it is expensive, unreliable and a poor passenger experience. This is made worse by the security shambles at Edinburgh Airport. I agree. I know that Flybe has lost engineers to other airlines. So the planes ‘going technical’ has become the norm. This weekend was pretty standard. Delays, missed connections, appointments and other arrangements, and passengers being bumped from overbooked flights.
“Flybe have to accept their service is failing the needs of islanders. Management also put intolerable pressure on their local staff in the Islands who face the ire of passengers annoyed by the continual disruption. That is not fair on hard working local staff.
“Many people now call Flybe ‘Flymaybe’. This cannot go on. The airline must get a grip of their service.
“The Scottish Government wrongly cut the Air Discount Scheme so that some islanders are no longer eligible. They should reverse that. They also could cut landing changes at airports they own such as Sumburgh and Kirkwall. The status quo is unacceptable. We need improvements and the islands need them now.”