HIGHLANDS and Islands Airports Ltd (HIAL) chairwoman Lorna Jack made a flying visit to Shetland on Monday to hear more from local politicians about the strength of opposition to its plans to introduce car parking charges at Sumburgh Airport.
Following a half-hour meeting at Lystina House in Lerwick on Monday afternoon, Shetland MSP Tavish Scott said Jack had been “left in no doubt as to our opposition to the proposal and the strength of feeling on this issue”.
HIAL has been under fire since declaring, without any consultation, that it intended to levy a £3-per-day charge for parking at Sumburgh starting early this summer.
The airport operator is to belatedly undertake a survey of airport users, but SIC transport committee chairman Ryan Thomson has described that as a “token gesture” and “quite simply these proposals won’t work” for most islanders.
Last week HIAL managing director Inglis Lyon said earlier this month that the airport operator would “review and potentially adjust” its plans, but after the meeting Jack said that at this stage “our proposal is to go ahead with the proposal for car parking charges”.
Scott said attendees at the meeting were “unanimously opposed” to the charges and “gave numerous practical examples of the impact this imposition would have on our community, and we expect HIAL to reconsider this proposal”.
Many objections centre on concerns that the existing bus service does not always tie in with flight arrivals and departures, while the airport is a £60 taxi ride away from Lerwick. Those living outwith the town face even more exorbitant costs and journey times.
Scott said he and councillors had offered alternative suggestions to help HIAL – which receives £26 million in public subsidies – balance its books. One such suggestion was levying a 40p airport landing charge, though Jack said she felt that idea was likely to be impractical.
The MSP added that he looked forward to meeting Scottish transport minister Humza Yousaf, along with councillors, when he visits Shetland on Friday.
“I will ask him to stop the charges and explore alternative ways HIAL can meet its commitments without charging islanders excessive amounts to use our lifeline services,” he said.
Jack told Shetland News she felt it had been a “very good” and “very open” meeting. She had gone into it hoping that local politicians “might give us support”, but she acknowledged they were “very much against car parking charges being introduced”.
The 40p landing charge would require “talking to airline customers” as HIAL is not responsible for air fees, but “we’ve put pries up to airlines before, so I’m not sure they’ll buy that”.
Jack said HIAL was already committed to waiving charges for those attending hospital appointments and pick-up and drop-off will remain free. She said other exemptions were possible once passenger surveys have been completed: “There may be other things that will see us amend this scheme, but right now our proposal is to go ahead [with the charges].”
She suggested that it may be worth looking at whether, following a 72 per cent rise in passenger numbers and with more than 500,000 people passing through Sumburgh, public transport links need to be modified.
Jack said she did not understand where the perception that Sumburgh is profitable had come from, because all of HIAL’s portfolio requires subsidy.
“This is about balancing our budget and ensuring we can continue to invest,” she said. “Inverness probably needs the least, but they all need subsidy, and we already have car parking charges in some of those locations.
“Sumburgh hasn’t gone first on this…. We’ve got to find a way of making sure the airport is there for the future.”
Asked whether, in hindsight, HIAL now regretted trying to railroad the proposals through without any consultation with the local community, Jack responded: “We always wanted to talk to passengers. If we regret anything, we regret that we don’t have time or money not to do this.
“We’re trying to consult with everybody… we’re listening to folk, but we have a practical issue in terms of this operating year to ensure we’re able to keep this airport open.
“We are all in this together. We’ve got a terrific resource in Sumburgh Airport. I’m keen to move that conversation on to be one more about colleagues at the council and elected officials supporting us. I understand that’ll be difficult just now when we’re introducing car parking charges, but there’s a lot still to do with Sumburgh.”