CALLS have been made for Flybe to demonstrate a concrete commitment to the Shetland community that goes beyond “cherrypicking” the most profitable routes amid fears about what would happen if rival airline Loganair was forced out of business.
Flybe’s decision to go head-to-head with Loganair, after the two partners fell out and decided to abandon their franchise arrangement, seems likely to result in some lower fares in the short term.
But politicians including councillor Ryan Thomson, who chairs Shetland’s transport partnership ZetTrans, have expressed unease about what might happen if air travel in and out of the islands reverts to a single airline.
Flybe intends to operate three flights to Aberdeen and one each to Edinburgh and Glasgow daily using a single Embraer jet aircraft from 1 September.
Following a meeting with the budget airline on Monday, Thomson told Shetland News: “There is definitely concern about what would happen if one of the operators were to pull out of the route.
“Although we are currently enjoying a price war which is driving down prices, both the information I have through the Shetland Islands Council, along with the predictions of many experts in the field and the history on the route, suggest there simply isn’t the demand for two operators and the worst case scenario we face is ending up with a poorer service than we currently have.”
Flybe’s chief revenue officer Vincent Hodder said the airline “would consider deploying additional capacity over and above what is currently planned” should Loganair withdraw from the market altogether.
Thomson said “time will tell” on that front, but he has pledged to work closely with both Loganair’s managing director Jonathan Hinkles and Flybe chief executive Christine Ourmieres-Widener “to make sure that if anything were to change in the future, the public of Shetland is affected as little as possible”.
Hinkles, who has been fiercely critical of Flybe over its plans, was in Shetland to counter Flybe’s PR offensive on Monday.
He said Loganair had been providing air services to the islands for 45 years and looks forward to “being here for the next 45”, but called for community support as he feels “strongly that Flybe’s move to cherry-pick our busiest routes to and from Shetland could have serious long-term consequences”.
Loganair employs 40 staff locally and also provides a host of services essential to maintaining island life, including newspaper and Royal Mail deliveries, transporting pharmaceutical and medical supplies and NHS patient travel.
“There are also a lot of questions which remain unanswered including how Flybe has managed to plan a flight on Sunday mornings when the airport is closed, its CEO’s statement to Shetland’s elected representative that they are committed for only a year and its claim to offer competitive fares when their most expensive tickets are much higher than Loganair’s,” Hinkles said.
He said the bill to increase fire service cover to enable a jet aircraft to operate at Sumburgh will come at a cost of “apparently around quarter of a million [pounds] per year”.
Some of those concerns were raised by Sumburgh Airport consultative committee member Jimmy Smith.
Afterwards he said: “I raised the fact that at the moment they can’t fly the Embraer into Sumburgh because they haven’t got the fire cover. They can get it fairly easily, but it’s going to cost … it’s going to put the price of their landing fees well up.”
Smith also questioned the viability of Flybe’s “very, very tight” schedule, saying that “if there’s delays something’s going to go squint”.
Shetland News asked Flybe to address many of those points. In relation to fire cover, its “current understanding is that HIAL has not raised any concerns about either the schedule or the equipment currently planned to be used”.
It did not comment on the purported £250,000-a-year cost, a spokeswoman instead suggesting that “the best source of factual information on this issue is HIAL rather than Loganair”. A spokesman for HIAL said “negotiations are continuing and that’s all they’re really commenting on”.
On the question of whether it will commit to taking on many of the contracts essential to support island life in the event that it succeeds in forcing Loganair out of business, Hodder said Flybe “continues to believe that there is space in the market for two competitors”.
“That is not to say that every route in the market could or should have two competitors,” she said. “It is important to have appropriate plans for how to deal with potential future scenarios and as a result of the feedback Flybe has received we plan to conduct further scenario exercises to scope out responses to potential market exits in the Highlands and Islands.
“Flybe is well aware of the importance of lifeline services for the islands and would consider deploying additional capacity over and above what is currently planned in the event of a total withdrawal from the market of Loganair.”
Hodder added it was “important to note that the ADS [Air Discount Scheme] programme operated by the Scottish Government represents a significant subsidy supporting flying to the Highlands and Islands and this is a key enabler of the smaller routes”.
Flybe found its meetings in Shetland “very valuable” and has now begun to “review our compassionate and bereavement policies to make sure that they remain suitable” for isles residents.
The airline is “comfortable that the published schedules remain robust and efficient and are an effective use of our joint assets [with partners Eastern Airways]”, Hodder continued.
He added: “It is important to distinguish between a single contiguous ‘line of flying’ and the allocation of a ‘single aircraft’. The Flybe and Eastern joint operation benefits from the spare aircraft maintained by Eastern in Aberdeen as well as Flybe’s spare aircraft in Aberdeen and around the Flybe network to ensure that there is continuity of our services to the islands.”
Meanwhile, amid an announcement of a nationwide clampdown on excessive credit card surcharges – for which Flybe has been identified as one of the worst offenders – the airline says that by the end of August 2017 its credit card fees will be reduced from three per cent to one per cent for most cards, while there is no charge for debit cards.
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