SHETLAND MSP Tavish Scott has suggested that installing an energy efficient biomass heating system at Sumburgh Airport could provide an alternative to its proposed car parking charge.
He told a Scottish Parliament debate on Highlands and Islands Airports Limited's (HIAL) plans that a new heating system could save £100,000 a year in addition to providing environmental benefits.
Scott also said the £3 a day charge - due to be implemented in July - is a "tax on island life" and added that if HIAL does not undertake an assessment of its proposal then its board members should be sacked.
A spokesman for HIAL said after the debate on Thursday that there "remains an urgent need to raise the revenue required to reinvest in maintaining viable air services for the communities we serve and a fair and proportionate parking charge for airport users is one means of maintaining the necessary investment."
HIAL announced in March without any consultation that it plans to introduce a £3 a day fee at its Sumburgh, Kirkwall and Stornoway airports from July, prompting criticism from the public and politicians.
Managing director Inglis Lyon previously said the government-owned company was under "increasing budgetary constraints", while transport minster Humza Yousaf said a car parking charge was the "only option" to avoid cuts at the loss-making Sumburgh Airport.
Installing barriers and ticketing machines at the three airports is expected to cost in the region of £500,000 - an investment HIAL hopes to recoup within a 12-month period - while it is thought that £150,000 a year could be made at Sumburgh in fees.
Scott said at Holyrood that the idea of a biomass heating system at Sumburgh was first mooted five years ago.
He said HIAL did nothing about the idea and added that the "suggestion that there are no financial alternatives to car parking is simply not so".
"So today [Thursday] I say to the minister please halt this tax on island life, a tax that undermines the ADS [Air Discount Scheme] policy...instruct HIAL what to do, and that is to conduct a proper assessment of their own operations," he added.
"And if they don't do that, get rid of this board - a board with no island knowledge whatsoever, and appoint people who can run the company efficiently."
In response Yousaf said he was unaware of the specifics of the heating suggestion but he added that "of course we should look into" the idea.
There was cross-party criticism of the plans and the lack of consultation, with the Conservatives' Jamie Halcro Johnston and Edward Mountain among those speaking up about the proposals.
Labour's Rhoda Grant said islanders already face high costs in visiting the mainland and suggested the car park charge could contribute to depopulation, especially for people who travel away for work.
"It could be the difference between being able to stay or not - they might have to consider moving to the mainland just because of the additional cost they already face with the flight, and this adds to it," she said.
Yousaf said that over 500 people have responded to a HIAL survey of airport passengers on the issue but he said he had only received nine representations directly regarding Sumburgh.
He admitted that if there had been an initial consultation on who wanted to pay car parking charges, "I can't imagine very many people would agree with that - who on earth would want to pay more, or want to pay, if you didn't?"
But he said air services have to be "sustainable" and added that the time between the announcement of the charges and their implementation on 1 July can be used to fine-tune the plans.
A HIAL spokesman said: "HIAL has - this week - concluded a survey of more than 500 airport passengers at Sumburgh, Kirkwall and Stornoway and is currently awaiting additional feedback from islanders before assessing the results.
"We continue to consult with those who use the airports and other stakeholders ahead of the implementation of parking charges on July 1. Once we have the results we will of course make them public.
"Revenue raised through these charges is required to reinvest and continuously develop the airports in coming years."