BUDGET airline Flybe should be taking a share of the blame along with franchisee Loganair for the problems which have beset air services to and from Shetland in recent months, according to an SIC councillor.
North mainland member Alastair Cooper was speaking during Monday afternoon’s meeting of the external transport committee at Lerwick Town Hall.
Loganair was not in attendance, but committee chairman Michael Stout explained that operations director Maurice Boyle – who was appointed less than three weeks ago – is eager to appear once he has fully grasped the challenges faced by the troubled airline.
It has faced sustained criticism this year for its fares and, increasingly of late, poor reliability with one in four flights in 2015 delayed by 15 minutes or more. Loganair itself described that performance as “exceptionally poor” back in September.
Earlier this autumn, pilots union BALPA wrote to Loganair outlining a raft of concerns about the airline’s maintenance department and questioning management’s ability to resolve the company’s crisis.
Cooper said: “We’re speaking about Flybe and their franchisee, which is Loganair, that’s not performing. Where does Flybe’s responsibility come in? Loganair is taking all the flak. Flybe has to come in at some point and say where we stand with it – that’s the piece of the jigsaw I don’t see coming into place at the moment.”
SIC transport official Michael Craigie said that Loganair represented Flybe “in every way”, but Cooper said the Scottish airline was “contracted to Flybe in some fashion or another” and maintained that “I would like to see them both here”.
“I’d have thought they should be up here defending their reputation,” he added, while forum member Catherine Hughson questioned whether Loganair and Flybe were “feart of being in the same room together”.
SIC councillor Jonathan Wills suggested there was an argument for the service to be put out to tender by the Scottish Government in the same way that Serco NorthLink’s ferry contract – up for renewal in 2018 – is.
Air services to and from Shetland are not designated as a “public service obligation”, but Wills said there was a “clear market failure”.
However Scott Preston, who is behind the Islanders for Fair Air Fares campaign, said a public service contract “would not necessarily improve things” for travellers.
He said it would potentially lead to “fewer flights with more difficult connections at mainland airports”, while other public service contracts were “notoriously expensive” and that – having discussed the issue with several major airlines in the UK, “I can safely say that it is likely the only bidder for such a contract would be Loganair”.
The Scottish Government does in effect provide a massive subsidy to the service through its Air Discount Scheme – due to rise from 40 per cent to 50 per cent off airfares in the new year.
Craigie pointed out that, technically, the subsidy goes to individual passengers rather than Loganair as the operator – though “the company benefits, no question about that, because more travel is able to take place”.
He said Transport Scotland was looking for Shetland, Orkney and the Western Isles to take part in an air service “scoping study”. The question of “how the market is performing and options around how that could be influenced” will form part of that.
Craigie added that talks had already taken place with Boyle since his appointment as operations director.
The new man felt it would be “difficult to give a good, coherent perspective” after such a short time in the post, but he does aim to attend the next meeting.
“He wants to give a good idea of timescales of when certain things will start to improve, and to do that he has to understand a bit more about the company he’s working with now,” Craigie said.
“They haven’t been hiding – they’re not denying [that problems remain], but want to be able to present what they’re going to be able to do – it was a bit too soon for this particular meeting.”