FLIGHTS to and from Scotland’s island communities could be much cheaper if subsidies allowed under European state aid regulation are applied fully.
Conservative candidate for the Shetland seat at this week’s Scottish Parliament elections, Cameron Smith, is arguing that the current Air Discount Scheme (ADS) could go much further.
Currently residents of the Scottish islands and those living in Caithness and north west Sutherland benefit from a 50 per cent reduction in airfares when travelling to a Scottish airport.
Business travellers and those on NHS funded trips are currently not included in the scheme.
However, Article 51 of the EU’s General Block Exemption Regulation allows, in principle, a subsidy of up to 100 per cent.
While the SNP is committed to a continuation of the 50 per cent discount, the Scottish Lib Dems are campaigning to have business travel restored to the scheme.
LibDem candidate Tavish Scott said a pledge for an increase in the ADS discount was not in the Tory manifesto.
“Any further reduction from the very high air fares we pay would be excellent.
“But right now what people really want is a reliable service so that we know we will fly on the flight we booked. An on time departure is still not the norm. It must be soon,” he added.
Labour’s Robina Barton said that airfares for visitors to the islands also needed to be lowered as otherwise the local tourist industry was unable to develop its potential.
Smith said that according to the revised aviation guidelines an 80 per cent discount is possible for remote parts of the European Union, such as the Scottish islands.
“Those rules provide for the possibility to provide a level of support up to 100 per cent of operating costs, if approved by the European Commission, and I would be arguing that the government should seek an increase in the level of discount,” he said
The Tory candidate has been working as an adviser to the Conservatives in the European Parliament for the last seven years, and is one of the few people who have read the regulations closely.
“We really would like to get to a competitive situation,” he told Shetland News. “At the moment we only have the one operator and that has an impact on the cost of travel.
“We also want to extent the Air Discount Scheme; I think we can go beyond the 50 per cent we have at the moment, and we could look at remote regions being able to get 80 per cent.”
The current ADS scheme runs until 2019 and he wants the next Scottish Government to apply for a higher subsidy rate.
Writing on the Facebook site of the Islanders for Fairer Air Fares campaign group, Smith added there is no reason why business travel should be excluded from the scheme.
“It is clear that business travel should be reinstated under the scheme. There is no reason to exclude it, having included it in the past.
“I’ve heard excuses that it is due to a change in the rules, but the part of the State Aid Guidelines applying to aid of a social nature has not changed since 1994.”
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