HIGHLANDS and Islands Airports Ltd (HIAL) has been strongly condemned for announcing that it is going to introduce a £3-a-day car parking charge at Sumburgh Airport – without carrying out any consultation with local politicians or the wider community.
The charges – which will also apply at Kirkwall and Stornoway airports – will be effective from early summer and would see anyone leaving their car at Sumburgh for a fortnight’s holiday face an extra bill of £42.
Neither Shetland MSP Tavish Scott nor Shetland Islands Council (SIC) had been kept abreast of HIAL’s plans ahead of an embargoed press statement issued on Thursday afternoon, and the Liberal Democrat described it as “just plain wrong”.
SIC interim leader Steven Coutts said he was "extremely disappointed" that HIAL had not consulted the council or the Sumburgh Airport Consultative Committee over the plans, with the local authority requesting urgent talks.
HIAL said the charges were part of a “long term programme of sustainable improvement” and brought Shetland, Orkney and the Western Isles into line with its other airports at Inverness and Dundee, where parking charges are already in place.
It said a £500,000 investment – installing new pay stations and barriers at the three airports – would be recouped in the first 12 months of operation and “from thereon money raised will be continuously reinvested to maintain and ultimately improve facilities, ensuring the long-term resilience of airport operations on the islands”.
A free hour pick-up/drop-off period would operate, which is “intended to assist those who do not have alternative transport to get to the airports, and therefore may rely on relatives and friends picking up or dropping off”.
The £3 charge for every 24 hours will be waived for passengers having to travel to attend medical and hospital appointments. They will be able to park for free at one of 508 spaces at Sumburgh.
But Scott said he and Orkney MSP Liam McArthur would raise their concerns directly with Scottish transport and islands minister Humza Yousaf, and have launched a petition opposing the move.
“I deplore this decision and will campaign to stop the introduction of a HIAL tax on islanders travelling,” Scott said.
“I stopped this happening when I was the transport minister and I am very disappointed that an SNP government is allowing the introduction of charges. Shetland will campaign against this.
“Sumburgh is right at the south end of our islands. It is 25 miles from Lerwick. Public transport links are not frequent so for most travellers there is no option but to take the car to the airport.
“Next week parliament will debate the Islands Bill. How is the imposition of car parking charges at Sumburgh and Kirkwall consistent with islands proofing? We will ask government ministers to explain. This decision is just plain wrong and I want it stopped.”
Coutts said: "The services running out of Sumburgh rely on the airport’s infrastructure, but we’re asking for HIAL’s evidence that every other source of funding for improvements was investigated before taking this decision.
"It is a prime example of how decisions can have distinctly 'island' impacts, leading to what I believe are disproportionately negative effects - an issue which the council continues to campaign against."
SIC transport committee chairman Ryan Thomson said the plans would have a negative impact on users of Sumburgh Airport travelling to and from the Scottish mainland.
"There will be additional pressures on public transport, and a consultation would also have highlighted that," he said.
"This will have an impact on the users of the airport, and place an additional financial burden on the people of Shetland who are simply trying to get on and off the island. There remain unanswered questions regarding these parking charges and the SIC will be looking to engage with HIAL as soon as possible."
A previous attempt by HIAL to introduce car parking charges back in 2009 was fiercely resisted and ultimately abandoned.
Sources within isles politics noted a huge rise in passenger numbers at Sumburgh in recent years, with one questioning whether HIAL was effectively using the travelling public at a profitable airport to subsidise less lucrative operations elsewhere in Scotland.
Statistics released by HIAL in January showed a 14 per cent rise in passenger numbers at Sumburgh to 386,039 – a year-on-year increase of 46,948.
Despite the total absence of any prior warning of the decision, HIAL managing director Inglis Lyon claimed the company was “committed to being open and transparent in its operations and our decision to increase charges has been taken in the best interests ensuring long-term sustainability of our airports”.
“The new parking charges will raise revenue that will be reinvested into maintaining and continuously developing the airports in years to come,” Lyon said.
“HIAL airports are required to operate as cost-effectively as possible and we need to develop a sensible, fair and pragmatic funding model that enables us to deliver growth and ensure the vital connectivity to our communities in the Highlands and Islands.
“We have been mindful of the important role that air travel plays for those people who use healthcare facilities and receive medical treatment on the mainland and we are making provision to ensure they will be exempt from parking charges.”
He added: “We have no intention of introducing drop-off charges at our airports. At Sumburgh, Kirkwall and Stornoway we will implement a one-hour pick up and drop off zone, which should mitigate against the vast majority of flight delays. Unlike other airports we do not charge for people to drop off and pick up.”
HIAL’s statement said added the planned £3 per day was a flat rate for short and long term parking and was “comparable with other parking rates found elsewhere in the local communities”.
Blue badge holders will be charged for their cars at the same rate as other drivers. There will be provision for blue badge holders within airport car parks and designated parking bays will be provided as close to the terminal as possible.