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Air fare campaigners call on HIAL to lower fees

A POPULAR social media-led campaign to tackle the high cost of flying to and from Scotland’s islands is seeking to exert pressure on the Scottish Government and airport owners HIAL after gaining its first concession from Loganair last week. 

The campaign, launched in June, has changed its name from “Islanders against Flybe and Loganair’s excessive prices” to “Islanders for Fair Air Fares”.

It follows last week’s announcement that Loganair had agreed to introduce a “compassionate” fare for those travelling due to family emergencies in response to lobbying from the campaigners.

Those behind the group explained that the name change was down to a feeling that others, including the Scottish Government and Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd (HIAL), bear some responsibility for the high fares.

However, HIAL responded by saying that it had met campaigners in August and its managing director Inglis Lyon had expressed a desire to meet for further talks. The airport group also said its fees typically only accounted for nine per cent of a “typical” Loganair fare.

Campaign founder Scott Preston said: “Our name has changed, not because we have stopped chasing Loganair, but because we have come to the realisation since our meeting with Loganair that they are not the only ones who have a case to answer.

“We successfully argued for the introduction of the compassionate fares scheme, and it is now time to continue work on the biggest one: overall fares. 

“The Scottish Government and HIAL have a lot to do with our prices. We have pushed the Government on and increase to ADS [Air Discount Scheme] and an expansion of the scheme and we look forward to hearing more on this from them soon. 

“HIAL, however, remain distant. They do not seem to want to engage or even discuss how their passenger fee – which is among the highest in the UK for some of the worst facilities – affects each and every single island flight. They appear to be under the impression this is solely the airlines fault. 

“This is positively not the case. Every cost HIAL give to Loganair has a direct impact on our ticket prices. We are therefore updating our aims and refreshing the campaign from today.”

Preston said the new campaign name gave a “much clearer statement of our aims than our previous name”.

More than 15,000 people are following the campaigners’ efforts on Facebook. Among its remaining objectives are seeking a “significant” reduction in air fares for islanders and an increase in the ADS discount from 40 per cent to 50 per cent.

Campaigners also want to see ADS expanded to include NHS flights, or find an alternative means of saving local health boards money. Last year NHS Shetland spent some £2.3 million on flights to the Scottish mainland – around 4 per cent of its overall budget.

Preston added: “It also ensures that people know we are targeting all those involved in our fares. Loganair deserve credit for engaging with the campaign and showing willingness to help – it’s time for the Scottish Government and HIAL to do the same.”

A HIAL spokesman said the organisation was “surprised” by the campaigners’ remarks given representatives had met senior HIAL manager Andrew Gower on 11 August.

During that meeting, the spokesman said, Gower indicated that HIAL’s managing director Inglis Lyon would be happy to meet campaign representatives either in Shetland or on the Scottish mainland.

The spokesman said: “We are happy to engage in an open and honest discussion about the cost of air fares with the campaign group. However, HIAL is just one of the players in this discussion.

“Our airport charges account for only part of the cost of air fares, around nine per cent of the typical Loganair fare. There are many other factors to consider, including charges at other Scottish airports, airline costs such as fuel, the impact of Air Passenger Duty and the level of profits airlines are making on these routes.

“HIAL operates at a commercial loss in order to sustain its island services and our budgets are fixed. Therefore, if we were to reduce landing charges, we would need to recover the income from other funding sources – for example, some airports have adopted development surcharges or drop off charges for motorists, neither of which we support.

“The other option is that we reduce our capital investment programme, effectively allowing the fabric of our terminal buildings to deteriorate. Again, that is not an option we are willing to consider.

“We are currently investing millions of pounds across our group, with Sumburgh the biggest single beneficiary, to deliver a better customer experience – but, of course, that investment has to be paid for.”

The spokesman added: “It is not a straightforward choice between lower airport charges and lower air fares. The issue is much more complex and requires a rounded and transparent solution. Whatever solution is found must be for the long term.

“We look forward to receiving a reply from the campaign group following our invitation to meet the MD.”