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Loganair claims first blood in airline battle

A Flybe/Eastern Embraer aircraft at Sumburgh Airport recently. Photo: Hans J Marter/Shetland News

LOGANAIR chief Jonathan Hinkles said his airline is performing better than Flybe on routes to and from Shetland – but he warned having two operators at Sumburgh Airport “isn’t sustainable” at current passenger levels.

The battle between the rival airlines swapped the skies for Lerwick Town Hall on Thursday afternoon as representatives for both operators gave updates at the latest meeting of the Shetland external transport forum.

Hinkles revealed passenger figures for the two operators since they quit their franchise partnership and went head to head from 1 September, with his airline seemingly winning so far.

But figures showed that all of the planes were on average flying less than half full as thousands of seats went empty.

Hinkles said Loganair had nearly double the number of passengers than Flybe travelling to and from Sumburgh on their competing routes in the first three weeks of September, despite it having less seats available on its smaller Saab planes.

Flybe interim chief commercial officer Ronnie Matheson said the figures were in line with the airline’s initial predictions as it builds on encouraging more people to travel to Shetland with lower fares, with future expansion possible.

Loganair started flying solo from 1 September after being a franchise partner for 25 years.

Flybe – in conjunction with Eastern Airways – competes with Loganair on routes to Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Glasgow using a bigger, faster Embraer 170 jet on nine flights a day.

Hinkles told the forum that 6,176 people had used Loganair between 1 and 20 September, while 3,199 travelled with Flybe.

He added that Loganair had 12,690 seats on their routes and Flybe 13,684, meaning the former had an overall load of 49 per cent and the latter 23 per cent.

Hinkles’ statistics also showed that Loganair had a market share of two thirds and Flybe had 34 per cent.

Loganair’s performance this summer compared to last year was up on 2016, he said, while planned developments include adding defibrillators to aircraft and adding more overhead baggage space.

Hinkles also attacked Flybe’s schedule over the upcoming festive period, with Loganair set to operate on every day Sumburgh Airport is open while Flybe is set to cut back on its Edinburgh and Aberdeen routes, for example.

He added that Loganair had evaluated using the Embraer 170 – taking over five years of weather data from Sumburgh – and concluded that it is three times more likely to “suffer serious delay or cancellation due to weather than the Saab 2000 on the same flight”.

Hinkles concluded that “the market is not growing to sustain the extra services” but said “we are here to stay – and we will be here to stay”.

Matheson detailed some of the improvements that Flybe has introduced since 1 September, including reducing its credit card surcharge to one per cent.

He added that the airline will have a “reciprocal disruption agreement with Loganair” fairly soon.

Matheson also said they are looking into making baggage fares for connecting journeys fairer.

Eastern Airways’ Matt Herzberg said that the flights so far has had a punctuality rating of 77 per cent – “below where we should be”.

He said this was partly due to two weather related events and disruption to an Aberdeen Airport runway, with its rating improving by 14 per cent recently.

Hinkles and Herzberg meanwhile had something of a verbal volley as the Loganair man took aim at Flybe/Eastern’s record of flying its Embraer 170s jets in crosswinds and on wet runways.

Herzberg denied Hinkles’ take on the aircraft – that it couldn’t handle winds as well as Saabs – saying there is no difference in the operational and approach capabilities between Eastern’s Embraer 170 and the Saab 2000 it also runs.

“The point remains, when the runway is wet and windy, the limitations around the Embraer is more,” Hinkles asserted.

Matheson, meanwhile, said Flybe’s pricing structure has now changed to make for “significantly lower” fares in the lead-up to departure – meaning that it is “much more accessible” for people to visit Shetland.

“We’ve got a mindset to change,” he said. “Previously people weren’t interested in coming here because of the price.”

Both the Loganair and Flybe men faced questions from the meeting’s attendees, who largely included councillors, business owners and tourism representatives.

Lerwick North councillor Stephen Leask questioned why a Flybe/Eastern plane couldn’t land at Sumburgh in strong crosswinds earlier in the month, with Herzberg insisting that pilots on the routes had experience of flying to Scatsta and Sumburgh for a number of years.

But this prompted Hinkles to raise the apparent limitations of the Embraer plane directly to Herzberg as the two camps locked horns.

The Eastern Airways man also dismissed suggestions that it had to hold back a plane at Sumburgh on Monday 12 September because the runway was not suitable for it to take off.

Matheson pointed towards teething issues with new aircraft and a new partner. “Things are on the upside,” he said.

Councillor Alastair Cooper said media coverage of Flybe’s initial problems contributed to a number of locals appearing to side with Loganair, with Matheson saying that there wasn’t enough focus placed on the airline’s subsequent “good days”.

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