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Transport / Lyall ‘not holding breath’ on plans for not-for-profit Highlands and Islands airline

FlyHighland entrepreneur Thomas Eccles said ‘it is not going to be easy – but it is achievable’

A COUNCILLOR leading on transport issues in Shetland has questioned whether a proposed not-for-profit airline in the Highlands and Islands will take off due to the costs involved.

Moraig Lyall, who chairs Shetland Islands Council’s environment and transport committee as well as local partnership ZetTrans, warned that the FlyHighland plans would require “considerable financial backing”.

The idea has been floated by young entrepreneur Thomas Eccles, who is keen to offer lower cost fares in the region – with a desire to include Sumburgh or Tingwall in a flight network which would feature other destinations like Kirkwall, Inverness and Wick.

Shetland Central councillor Moraig Lyall. Photo: Hans J Marter/Shetland News

There would also potentially be flights linking other areas like the Western Isles.

Eccles is initially looking at having two aircraft on the routes, running a daily service.

He has launched a crowdfunding campaign to help finance the start-up costs, and as of 10 January a GoFundMe page shows donations of £132 against a target of £250,000.

Eccles, who has a long-held passion for aviation, acknowledged it is “not going to be easy – but it is achievable”.

“We plan to attend several events across the Highlands and Islands to raise awareness and funds for the airline.” he said, adding that there could be business buy-in too – including through potentially advertising on the inside or outside of the planes.

But Lyall expressed caution over the idea, commenting: “I would never want to pour cold water on anyone’s dreams, but this would be a massive undertaking that required considerable financial backing and the rate of donations to his crowdfunding page is not very encouraging.

“I wish him all the best but I’m not holding my breath for seeing him operating out of Shetland anytime soon.”

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Travel expert Simon Calder, who has covered the aviation sector extensively in his career as a journalist and broadcaster, told Shetland News that “in principle I am absolutely in favour of competition in transport”.

“Examples elsewhere have shown that fares fall, and many more people are empowered to travel,” he said.

“In high summer, I am sure this could be a great success. Loganair fares can be extremely high: on the last Sunday of July the price from Sumburgh to Inverness is £264 one-way. But subsidised NorthLink ferries are available as an alternative.

“And on a wet Wednesday in February, without any tourist demand, it is difficult to see how the Highlands and Islands routes would sustain two airlines.

“When Flybe moved in against Loganair, the only winner was the opportunistic traveller; both carriers lost a fortune.”

Eccles said the idea came to light amid frustration over travelling between the Scottish islands, with cost proving a barrier.

Thomas Eccles is the brains behind the FlyHighland idea.

“After making multiple trips and having friends on the island, I had a good understanding at the beginning of the year that getting on and off the island quickly was a costly option most of the time,” he said.

“I started my career in Aberdeen as an air freight coordinator, so I started exploring the possibilities and legalities of starting this project.

“I have surrounded myself with the aviation world for years, from starting at 14 being the youngest solo glider pilot at Cairngorm Gliding Club to working with air freight and working with a major distribution company covering roughly a 6,000 square mile area of the Highlands of Scotland, as well as managing national logistics solutions pricing.”

He said he particularly understands the transport barriers affecting Shetland, having lived in the isles temporally at the beginning of 2022 while working for a fuel supplier.

Eccles hopes that his company could have planes in the air by mid-2024.

He said initially FlyHighland would look to procure small Britten Norman islander planes. These are of the same type which fly between Tingwall Airport, Fair Isle and Foula, although there are different variants.

There is a proposal to use Wick as a ‘hub’ airport for onward travel to the Northern Isles in some instances, while Eccles is keen to work with the Air Discount Scheme.

Whilst the project is in its infancy the company is keen to hear from people who want to work as as a pilot or mechanic for the proposed airline, as well as in sales/marketing.

A recently published FAQ on the FlyHighland website said: “FlyHighland expects to lower prices for island residents and visitors across the board.

“We are here first and foremost to benefit Islanders and local businesses and to nurture economic development through connectivity on and between the different islands.”

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