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Skerries and Papa Stour air link under threat

The current service to the outer isles is provided by Directflight on behalf of Shetland Islands Council - Photo: Shetland News

THE small island communities of Out Skerries and Papa Stour may lose their regular flights to the Shetland mainland as local authority cost-cutting measures start to bite.

On Wednesday councillors will be asked to make a decision on the future of the inter-island air service, when the £190,000 per year contract comes up for retendering for the period April 2013 to March 2016.

Head of transport Michael Craigie wants to seek two prices from tenderers: one covering provision to Fair Isle, Foula, Skerries and Papa Stour; the other only providing a service to Foula and Fair Isle.

Shetland Islands Council officials are having to find an unprecedented 23 per cent saving from the £5.3 million transport budget.

“There is an opportunity for the council to consider the level of inter-island air services provided in the next contract by seeking two prices from tenderers,” Mr Craigie writes in his 12-page report.

“The main reason for considering this is that in the case of Papa Stour the use of the service is relatively low and there is a good ferry service.

“In the case of Skerries there is a good ferry service covering six days per week albeit at a journey time of 90 minutes.

“Therefore each of the communities would still have reasonable connections with mainland Shetland.”

The communities in Skerries and Papa Stour have not been consulted on the second scenario. Mr Craigie said that the intention was to consult during the tender period.

Skerries resident Julie Arthur said the community felt under siege, and described this latest move as further evidence for the widely held view that the authorities were systematically closing down the small island.

She said: “It is heart-breaking. This island has survived the clearances and the press gangs, but this is almost like a vendetta against us.

“We understand that cuts have to be made, but everybody here is taking this personally because it is their home and livelihood that is under threat.”

Skerries fire station has just been closed and the tiny secondary department of the local school is yet again under threat of closure.

In his report, Mr Craigie also discusses a number of possibilities of how to reduce the cost of providing the air service, including closing the Tingwall airstrip and transferring the inter-island flight service to Sumburgh airport.

However, hangar-leasing costs, substantially higher costs for a ‘dial-a-ride’ service provided to islanders, and additional capital cost would make such a move unviable.

Also, over the last two years, the council has invested more than £600,000 into improving facilities at Tingwall, and abandoning these at this time were likely to generate criticism from watchdog Audit Scotland, he said.