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Transport / Current air fare discount is the maximum, government says

Local MSP Beatrice Wishart has asked the Scottish Government if it has considered increasing the air discount

A Loganair flight preparing to take off from Sumburgh Airport. Photo: Shetland News

THE SCOTTISH Government has reiterated that as it stands the current 50 per cent air travel discount is the maximum fare reduction it can give to islanders flying to the mainland.

But in light of the cost of living crisis some MSPs have said they are keen to see officials explore whether the discount can go further.

Highlands and Islands MSPs have offered their thoughts to Shetland News on the idea the 50 per cent air discount being increased to help the financial pressure on people who may need to travel.

It comes after lead officer of local transport partnership ZetTrans Michael Craigie suggested at a meeting on Monday that the discount applied to some routes elsewhere within Europe is higher.

He made the point at Lerwick Community Council following a question about the price of fares on Loganair flights between Shetland and Scottish mainland.

Craigie stressed that Loganair is under no obligation to set lower fares as it is operating on a purely commercial basis.

Earlier this month Loganair chief Jonathan Hinkles wrote an open letter to Shetland passengers apologising for poor on-time performance – and he also touched on the subject of fares.

It came after a family were priced at around £1,000 for a return trip from Glasgow to Sumburgh in the summer, although the passengers were not islanders so they were not eligible to benefit from the discount.

The Air Discount Scheme was launched by the Scottish Government back in 2006 with the help of then Shetland MSP Tavish Scott, the transport minister at the time.

It aims to give resident islanders across Scotland cheaper flights to the mainland, whilst promoting social inclusion. It does not apply to businesses or NHS flights.

It is available for people in Shetland, Orkney, the Western Isles, Islay, Jura, Colonsay, Caithness and north-west Sutherland.

For those travelling by sea, the publicly funded Northern Isles ferry service offers a 30 per cent discount to islanders.

A Scottish Government spokesperson told Shetland News that under the terms of the notified Air Discount Scheme, the “maximum discount that can be applied is 50 per cent”.

Shetland MSP Beatrice Wishart. Photo: Shetland News.

“We are pleased to have funded this significant discount through the scheme since 2016, helping residents of our remote and island communities that rely on these connections,” they added.

But in light of pressures on people’s pockets, Shetland MSP Wishart has submitted a parliamentary question asking if the government has thought about increasing the discount beyond 50 per cent.

She said she is “keenly awaiting the reply”.

“But when it comes to islanders receiving a greater discount, I can’t see that we will get anything further from the Scottish Government this far out from another election,” Wishart added.

While rises in the cost of living have been hitting the consumer, it is also affecting airlines; Loganair for instance has begun applying a £3.95 surcharge per person for each flight to cover the increased price of fuel.

Meanwhile Labour’s Highlands and Islands MSP Rhoda Grant said: “Island communities face higher charges on almost everything due to additional freight charges. The cost of flights add to this whether it’s for holidays, visiting family or traveling for health reasons.

“The cost-of-living-crisis will be isolating to many, but this will especially be felt on our islands and thus it’s important that this burden on people is reduced as much as possible to allow people to travel when necessary.”

Conservative Highlands and Islands MSP Jamie Halcro Johnston also appeared to support the idea of looking into a greater discount.

“The cost of living has always been high in Shetland, with islanders incurring disproportionate travel costs compared to other parts of the country,” he said.

“And Shetland has a particularly high dependence on air travel, which makes matters even more challenging for both the public and the airlines given the spike in fuel and other costs we are experiencing.

“While this is a global cost of living crisis, surely it makes sense for the Scottish Government to look at all areas where it can take further action to help folk. It cannot simply sit back and claim it’s for others to act.

“It is important that any action taken is targeted to support those who most need it, but providing further help to ensure islanders aren’t priced out of using our vital air links could be one area where additional support is given.”

But SNP Highlands and Islands MSP Emma Roddick said the government’s efforts around discounted flights is “being made within the very real limits of devolution”.

The SNP’s Highlands and Islands list MSP Emma Roddick.

“The cost of living crisis is clearly very concerning, and particularly for those in poverty or on the borderline in our island communities, due to the already higher costs here,” she explained.

“The Scottish Government is doing all it can within its fixed budget to combat these issues, but that fixed budget means that it cannot provide support to every scheme it might want to, or to the full extent that it might want to.

“It’s not helpful to compare Scotland to countries which have full powers over their finances and their transport policies.

“While the Scottish Government recently extended the popular air fare reduction scheme for a further five years, you cannot ignore the fact that these efforts are being made within the very real limits of devolution.”

Meanwhile the Greens’ MSP for the region Ariane Burgess MSP stressed the importance of environmentally friendly travel.

“I recognise that air travel to Shetland is a lifeline service, and it is right that locals get a discount so that cost is not a barrier to them accessing essential services,” she said.

“I would be concerned if the discount were to drive an increase in flights overall.

“We need to make sure that the greenest option is always the cheapest and that the overall transport mix works for islanders.”

Craigie acknowledged that there is debate around the extent to which a government can intervene when it comes to discounting air fares.

“I am aware that on some other routes within Europe that intervention rate is much higher [than the Scottish Government’s 50 per cent],’ he said.

He explained that the Air Discount Scheme is a form of subsidy which is provided to individual passengers and does not go to Loganair, although it is administered through the airline’s booking and payment system.

With Loganair needing to set its fares so the airline is financially viable, Craigie said the only available means at this stage of lowering fares is for Scottish Government to change its approach to its levels of air discount.

Last year the Air Discount Scheme was extended through to March 2026.