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Thousands back campaign for cheaper airfares

A CAMPAIGN calling on Flybe and Loganair to reduce the cripplingly high cost of airfares to the Scottish islands has attracted the support of more than 7,500 people in the space less than 48 hours.

Scott Preston, the former owner of Tagon Stores in Voe, created the ‘Islanders against Flybe & Loganair’s excessive prices’ page on Facebook.

Over the past three years he had noticed a “steady increase in flight prices” and the added cost to visit family and friends, to go on holiday and to attend funerals was “clearly something that has frustrated many islanders not just in Shetland but throughout Scotland”.

A growing number of islanders have questioned why fares remain so high despite a huge tumble in oil prices, a boom in the number of passengers travelling through Sumburgh Airport and healthy profits for Loganair.

“On social media there are hundreds of complaints and issues that Loganair simply ignore and don’t respond to,” Preston told Shetland News.

“Flybe handle most of the hassle as the franchisor and Loganair simply pay them a fee for the privilege of using their livery and their buying/advertising power.”

Preston said he spotted Flybe advising customers on Twitter that the reason prices were so high was because they were set by Loganair – “so even Flybe staff are recognising that flight prices are high”.

As of Monday morning, 7,638 people had ‘liked’ the page set up by Preston. It is littered with examples of steep fares being quoted:

  • A family trying to book a return from Sumburgh to Edinburgh in November were asked to pay a £1,325 fare for four adults even though they are trying to book five months in advance.
  • An NHS worker in Stornoway said the health service had to pay a £678 return for herself to accompany a patient to Glasgow Royal Infirmary.
  • SIC leader Gary Robinson calculated that a weekend in Orkney – an 85-mile journey – In July would cost £154. Someone living in Lisbon could holiday in the Azores (850 miles apart) for 71 Euros. “This could make Shetland to Orkney, mile-for-mile, Europe’s most expensive flight,” he said.
A Flybe representative responded to a customer complaint by saying fares were high because the flights are operated by Loganair.

“We’ve had stories and complaints from people on the islands, from family members wishing to visit the islands and from ex-islanders who can’t afford to come home,” he said.

The new campaign has won the backing of local Liberal Democrat MSP Tavish Scott.

“Shetlanders are booking summer holidays,” he said. “Many people book months ahead to find lower fares. But low fares seem few and far between. So a Facebook campaign by folk who are arguing for low fares, better reliability and good connections is very welcome.

“ADS [Air Discount Scheme] helps, but not enough. The Scottish Government has also cut the number of people who can use it. So I will ensure that the Scottish Government know about this new campaign and do something about it.”

Scott and his Orkney counterpart Liam McArthur are seeking a meeting with transport minister Derek Mackay. McArthur said current problems with flight delays and cancellations – often due to technical faults and “operational” reasons – have “added to the sense of frustration and anger felt locally”.

Preston said he hoped campaigners would be able to get a face-to-face response from senior Loganair staff and the opportunity to put islanders concerns directly to them.

He said: “One of the most hurtful things is when someone has to attend a funeral and the prices are so high they almost consider taking a bank loan just so they can say goodbye to their loved ones. We want Loganair to explain how that is fair when they’re making £6 million in profit.”

Preston said he “absolutely” accepted that running an airline is an expensive business. But he pointed out that demand across the Highlands and Islands is on the rise: “more and more flights are being introduced, so why are prices going up?”

In addition to grumbles about high prices, concern is mounting about the reliability of the ageing Saab aircraft used by Loganair following a slew of technical faults.

He also questioned why Loganair had a Twitter feed that was private. “Why don’t they want people to be able to contact them using modern communication? They don’t have a Facebook page, they just have one email address. Nothing more.

“Islanders do not want a token gesture of a one-off sale which has been done before, they want a significant change that really reflects both the profit Loganair have made and the high price of living here.”

When Shetland News tried to set up an interview with Loganair to discuss the issue of flight pricing a few weeks ago, it refused the request and instead issued a short statement.

At one stage its PR firm claimed this website was “chasing a negative headline” and questioned whether more than a small handful of islanders had expressed concerns about high prices.

In response to our 6 May article on the subject, there was an avalanche of messages from islanders expressing their outrage at the cost of flying in and out of Shetland.

A Loganair spokesman said the airline offered a “tiered fare structure” and prices were determined “by flight, by day and by season – particularly on busy routes”.

“As is the case with most airlines, fares purchased in close proximity to the time of departure are generally more expensive,” he said. “Loganair is one of the few airlines which continues to offer a 33 per cent discount for children as well as concession fares for students and family members visiting a relative in hospital.

“Loganair operates flights from Shetland, Orkney, and the Western Isles at their own commercial risk without any government subsidy.

“All fares are inclusive of third-party costs including airport charges and air passenger duty [APD] – typically a combined £40 charge per passenger per round trip to/from Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Glasgow.

“With the Scottish Government’s air discount scheme, island residents benefit from a 40 per cent discount of the fare excluding airport charges and APD. In addition, passengers are entitled to a free 20kg luggage allowance and onboard service.”

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