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SNP increases air discount to 50 per cent

THE SCOTTISH Government has announced an increase in the Air Discount Scheme (ADS) applied to flights in and out of Shetland from 40 per cent to 50 per cent.

It follows months of concerted grassroots campaigning aimed at reducing the cost of travelling to and from the islands on Flybe/Loganair-operated planes.

ADS, first introduced under the Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition in May 2006, will switch to the higher rate of discount for tickets booked on or after 1 January.

Scotland’s minister for transport and islands Derek Mackay made the announcement during an islands debate in the Scottish Parliament on Tuesday.

Mackay said a 50 per cent discount on fares was the maximum allowed under the scheme, which was earlier this year extended until 2019.

“The Scottish Government continues to do everything we can to support communities in the Highlands and Islands and measures such as the Air Discount Scheme and freezing ferry fares make a real difference for local residents,” the minister said.

Scott Preston, who initiated the 15,000-strong campaign to reduce fares earlier this year, welcomed the new 50 per cent ADS rate as a victory for islanders who stood up and made their voices heard.

“The scheme has proved hugely popular with users, as it directly tackles the issue of high air fares in the Highlands and Islands. By increasing the discount offered to the maximum allowed we are aiming to make sure these communities remain connected.”

Scott Preston, founder of the campaign for lower air fares backed by more than 15,000 people on Facebook, said the move would make “such a difference” to local people.

The group recently gathered the names of businesses and politicians representing over 250 individuals across Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles in an open letter calling on the government to introduce a 50 per cent ADS rate.

Preston said: “This increase will make such a difference to families and individuals and when combined with the benefits of the compassionate fare introduced last month it has ensured that for the first time in a long time air fares to the islands will begin to seem fair.

“Local people came together through the campaign and it’s not without effect that the people were publicly and overtly shouting for change. We will no doubt hear our local politicians claiming credit for this – but it’s the voices of 15,000 people who wanted change that deserve the credit. 

“Tired by the lack of political movement in almost 10 years, they came together and took the matter into their own hands. It has clearly worked. We’re indebted to our supporters, without whom the increase to ADS and the compassionate air fare would not have been possible.”

Shetland MSP Tavish Scott, who ahead of the debate had called for “action not words” from the SNP in various areas, welcomed the ADS increase. But he called for the government to re-apply the discount to businesses, charities and public sector bodies.

“Air fares are a huge factor for islanders travelling to the Scottish mainland,” he said. “The increase in ADS is good. It is what islanders have been pressing for.

“I hope the Scottish Government will now reverse their earlier decision to cut back on the eligibility for the scheme. This has not helped working people across Shetland. So I will continue to make the case for the full ADS to be implemented by this government. That would be the progress we need.”

Transport and islands minister Derek Mackay announced the increase in the Scottish Parliament on Tuesday.

In a statement, SIC leader Gary Robinson said the development “follows on from the work of the Our Islands Our Future campaign, which has built a strong working relationship with the Scottish Government based upon mutual respect and sound arguments”.

Robinson said he was “very pleased that progress had been made” on air fares, adding Shetland, Orkney and Western Isles leaders had met Mackay at the Convention of the Highlands and Islands in Elgin on Monday where transport was “firmly on the agenda”.

The three councils were “able to impress upon the government the need for further intervention to support our vital air services”.

Robinson added: “While this is a major step forwards, much still needs to be done to secure reliable and affordable transport links to the islands. We will continue to lobby at all levels of government and in Europe in order to achieve this.”

Meanwhile, Mackay also announced a “total freeze” on ferry fares for 2016/17 across Scottish Government-subsidised services – including passengers, cars and commercial vehicles.

The parliamentary debate follows the launch of a consultation on an Islands Bill last week, which the SNP says could result in additional powers, stronger representation at Holyrood and the creation of a national islands plan.

Early in 2016 an islands communities conference will be held and Mackay urged anyone interested to get involved in helping work towards a “more prosperous and fairer future” for the islands.

“The Scottish Government continues to do everything we can to support communities in the Highlands and Islands and measures such as the Air Discount Scheme and freezing ferry fares make a real difference for local residents,” the minister said.

“The scheme has proved hugely popular with users, as it directly tackles the issue of high air fares in the Highlands and Islands. By increasing the discount offered to the maximum allowed we are aiming to make sure these communities remain connected.”

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