INTER-island air services are set to stay at Tingwall Airport after councillors ruled that it remains the best location for flights.
The issue was raised at a meeting of the full Shetland Islands Council (SIC) on Wednesday afternoon as members discussed a consultant’s report on the future of air services in the isles and their socio-economic impact.
The future of the airport has been in question for a number of years, with suggestions that Sumburgh Airport could be a more efficient base for inter-island flights.
A report from Peter Brett Associates, however, said the “socio-economic case overwhelmingly favours” Tingwall as the base for services despite Sumburgh potentially being a slightly cheaper option in the long run.
Councillors agreed with this view and decided that air services should remain at Tingwall.
They also gave the green light to a business case being prepared into required capital investment at the airport in areas like runway and terminal upgrades which has an estimated cost of up to £1.8 million.
The airport is included in a review of the council’s transport as the local authority explores where it can rein in its spending amid a warning that it needs to find savings of more than £15 million by 2023.
Councillors also heard that an outline business case into the socio economics of air services recommends that flights to Papa Stour and Skerries are withdrawn and compensating ferry arrangements made in their place, although planes have not been travelling to Skerries for some time.
That means that there could only be flights to and from Fair Isle and Foula from when the next inter-island air services contract comes into force from 1 April 2020.
A decision on amendments to the flight service will come at a later date, although the Papa Stour and Skerries communities were previously consulted on regarding the proposal to remove their air links.
Airtask currently operates flights to Fair Isle, Papa Stour and Foula from Tingwall for the council, with Fair Isle particularly popular with visitors.
The communities of Fair Isle and Foula were keen to see Tingwall remain open, with concerns raised that Sumburgh could lead to reduced reliability and longer travelling times.
A report from the SIC’s transport manager Michael Craigie said that “whilst the financial benefits of moving to Sumburgh are apparent but marginal (and perhaps more significant in the longer term), the socio-economic case overwhelmingly favours Tingwall insofar as it provides the most effective means of maximising connectivity and reliability”.
Councillors were also told that tendering for the next inter-island contract when the base for services was uncertain would likely have a “significant negative impact on the cost of the contract as any tenderer would be taking significant risks arising out of uncertainty relating to cost of operations over the course of the contract”.
South mainland councillor Allison Duncan, who has previously spoken out in favour of shutting Tingwall Airport, said he felt the socio economic benefits of keeping it open “do not add up”.
He questioned why a decision had not been made on the airport previously if there could be problems with it aligning with the next air services contract in 2020.
Craigie admitted it was just the way council business had panned out over time.
South end councillor Robbie McGregor, meanwhile, questioned if the marginal financial benefit of Sumburgh could be “blown out of the water” if rates at the HIAL-owned airport were to rise.
The topic of storage space for islander planes at Sumburgh Airport was also raised, with the consultant’s report estimating that a new £600,000 hangar would have to be built if air services moved.
George Smith questioned if the proposed capital costs were a “true indication”, with the south mainland councillor saying that some businesses in the area rented out parts of hangars owned by private companies like Bristows.
Capital works proposed for Tingwall Airport include a new watch tower which could cost up to £250,000, but North Mainland councillor Alastair Cooper asked what would happen if the new tower was not built.
Craigie said one option could be to have someone come in to watch planes land and depart and communicate via radio, while CCTV was another option.
After the questions were concluded, chairman of the council’s environment and transport committee Ryan Thomson proposed to move the recommendation to keep Tingwall as the flight base.
He said if the council ignored the socio-economic case favour of a decision which has a “very marginal financial benefit to the council, we need to be clear what message that would send to Holyrood and Westminster” in light of ongoing talks about Shetland’s lifeline services.
Thomson was backed by McGregor, who said he “strongly supported” the views of Fair Isle and Foula residents.
Duncan admitted the given the recent fire in Fair Isle and the “uncertainty” over a new vessel for the ferry service to and from the island, he would agree with the motion.
However, he said he felt that Tingwall Airport would ultimately close at some point in the future.
“I believe Shetland does not need three airports,” Duncan said.
George Smith, meanwhile, remarked that he was “disappointed” by the level of information in the report, particularly when it came to the financial details.
He said he had recently spoken to residents of Fair Isle about transport, with a clear desire shown by locals for services to remain at Tingwall.
Smith said that one islander told him that “travel should be normal, not an aspiration”.
John Fraser, meanwhile, called for the decision to be deferred so that councillors could have more detail on issues like the the value of land at Tingwall if the airport site was to be sold.
However, the Lerwick councillor did not receive any support for his amendment.
North mainland member Alastair Cooper reflected that Tingwall Airport had always been a divisive topic, with some councillors for keeping it and some against.
“To some extent Tingwall is this council’s Brexit,” he said.
Cooper, however, noted that it was right to listen to the wishes of island residents themselves.
He added that his personal long-term focus would be on maintaining the airstrips at Foula and Fair Isle.
The strategic, financial, commercial and management components of the outline business case regarding the future make-up of air services are expected to be reported to the council on 20 August, with full business case following on 25 September.