A PUBLIC meeting organised by Flybe on Thursday evening heard of islanders’ hopes that the new era of cheaper airfares will not be short-lived – but misgivings remain about the budget airline’s ability to operate multiple routes in and out of Shetland with a single aircraft.
Since Flybe went into direct competition with former partners Loganair on routes between Sumburgh and Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Glasgow, there has been a pronounced impact on the price of flying to the mainland.
Flybe estimates that, even adjusted to allow for seasonal differences, fares in September and October have been between 20 and 40 per cent cheaper on average – with the option of last-minute air travel becoming an affordable option for many.
At a meeting in the Shetland Museum and Archives, interim chief commercial officer Ronny Matheson said significant reductions in fares booked several weeks in advance became even more pronounced closer to the date of travel.
“That’s what competition is doing here,” he said. “It’s driving down price and giving you the opportunity to book cheaper tickets – this is what we’ve brought to this island.
“Flybe believes there is growth potential and we can reach that audience through lower fares and investment marketing – we want to break down the barrier that was previously price.”
However, considerable scepticism has been expressed – not least by Loganair’s management – as to whether Flybe is attracting enough custom to sustain its service, with numerous anecdotes about jets flying with barely a handful of passengers on board.
It is understood that for November to date, Loganair retains over two thirds of the overall market share for routes to Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Glasgow on which the two airlines are competing.
Matheson insisted: “Passenger numbers are growing in line with our forecasted expectations.
“We think the market is sustainable for two carriers to operate on these routes, but it’s not all just about outbound for Shetland – it’s about what we can do for inbound customers to Shetland, [who are then] spending money in hotels, taxis, pubs.”
But the airline’s delegation – including head of operations David Paterson, Matheson and Eastern Airways’ head of commercial Matt Herzberg – again faced questions about the viability of using a solitary Embraer 170 jet to connect islanders to three different Scottish cities.
One audience member pointed to “a significant number of flights that are significantly late” and suggested “maybe the strategy of using a single aircraft is wrong – if something goes wrong earlier in the day, you’ve had it”.
Flybe representatives referred back to a disruption-laden day on 4 September and suggested Loganair’s PR offensive had embedded a false perception in people’s minds. They cited 31 October as a day when Loganair faced a slew of delayed flights and Flybe only had disruption to one flight.
“There are some perceptions that we need to try and break down,” Matheson said. “[4 September] was three days into our venture, we had one bad day, but that seems to have stuck with everyone.”
Those perceptions have arguably been further embedded, however, by more recent instances of several flights being knocked well off schedule as a result of delays to morning flights.
Ahead of Thursday’s meeting, indeed, after Flybe’s Glasgow flight had landed at Sumburgh 51 minutes late, its Edinburgh flight had been cancelled altogether along with one from Sumburgh to Aberdeen – before an early evening flight north from Aberdeen – using a back-up aircraft – landed only 11 minutes behind schedule.
Herzberg said the Embraer jet was able to use both Sumburgh runways in daylight hours and its “approach limitation is no different from the Saab 2000”. In addition, “where feasible” a second back-up Eastern Airways plane based in Aberdeen can be used to get the schedule back on track.
But businessman Jimmy Smith said he had noticed there had been regular and recurring delays, especially to the last flight in or out of Sumburgh in the evening.
Flybe’s presentation included a statistic that 68 per cent of its flights were running with a delay of less than 15 minutes in September and October.
That figure does relate to all disruptions, including weather, technical issues and unforeseen factors such as runway issues at Aberdeen Airport.
Shetland News has requested equivalent figures from Loganair for the same two months.
Smith said he would “like to see it broken down – half an hour, one hour, two hour, three hours, cancelled – that would be much more meaningful.”
But he welcomed Flybe’s presence in the islands overall, noting that overall passenger numbers had increased.
“A lot of people in Shetland are not convinced of your commitment – they’ll try it and if it doesn’t work out they’ll be gone,” he said. “I hope you stay, because you’re keeping Loganair honest – and I hope Loganair stays because they’re keeping you buggers honest!”
Another audience member, Arlene Gardner, agreed: “I hope you both continue, because it’s a really positive experience for people – it’s driving down prices in Shetland, and that’s what we need.”
The presentation also referred to a disruption agreement whereby Loganair will accommodate Flybe passengers and vice-versa should it be necessary.
Flybe’s representatives said that demonstrated that while PR skirmishes ensue – Loganair staff were on hand outside the meeting offering free snacks to members of the public – behind the scenes sensible talks are taking place.
Matheson acknowledged: “Yes, there’s a PR battle going on, there’s people outside handing out caramel wafers, but in the background we are talking. It’s a civil discussion.”
Meanwhile, Paterson said Flybe had put in place concessionary fares for NHS patients and it is “now up to the patient transfer office in Lerwick to start booking us”.
“For some reason they’re not, and we need to get to the bottom of why that is,” he said. “NHS Shetland maybe just need a wee bit of a push to say there is another carrier on here, and [when making appointments, patients maybe want to ask] what about putting us on Flybe?”
The issue of patient travel was heavily in the spotlight earlier this year when NHS Shetland proposed shifting the bulk of its patients from plane to ferry to save money.