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Businesses 'must use Wick/Aberdeen air link more often'

By Alan Hendry

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Wick/Aberdeen flights were reinstated in 2022 and the service is operated by Eastern Airways.
Wick/Aberdeen flights were reinstated in 2022 and the service is operated by Eastern Airways.

A Scottish Government minister has indicated that Highland Council must make "every effort" to increase passenger numbers flying between Wick and Aberdeen if the route is to have a long-term future.

Emma Roddick also warned that local businesses need to make greater use of the subsidised service, which was reinstated in April 2022 and is operated by Eastern Airways.

Transport Scotland announced last month that its support for the Wick/Aberdeen public service obligation (PSO) will remain in place in 2024/25.

Ms Roddick, Scotland's migration minister and an SNP MSP for the Highlands and Islands, made her remarks in a letter to Highland councillors Matthew Reiss and Andrew Jarvie. They had raised a number of issues with Ms Roddick after she launched a Scottish Government report on addressing depopulation.

A 25 per cent rise in passenger numbers at Wick helped ensure continuation of the subsidy. However, the transport agency made it clear that it wanted to see additional growth on the route.

Ms Roddick wrote: "The Scottish Government has committed to aligning infrastructure delivery with local needs as far as is possible, as we know this will be crucial if we are to realise our ambition of building a sustainable, affordable and accessible transport system. We have confirmed that we will provide funding of up to a maximum of £1 million for the Wick to Aberdeen air service for 2024/25.

"It has been noted that passengers have increased between the first and second year of the service. While this is welcome, the total number of passengers to date is not as great as was anticipated in the original business case.

"As the lead body for the service, it is essential that Highland Council makes every effort to increase use of the service further. Crucially, yield per passenger must also increase.

"To maximise the value of the service and ensure that public funding is spent effectively, private sector companies, in particular, must use the service more often.

"The primary rationale originally given for subsidising the service was to support business in the Caithness area. Quite simply, we must see the strong and clear support from local business organisations translate into more passengers for the service.

"In addition to direct support for the Wick to Aberdeen air service, the Scottish Government continues to subsidise the operation of Wick John O’Groats Airport. This brings our total financial support for the route and the airport to over £3 million in 2024/25.

"It is essential that the airport generates greater commercial revenue in the future to not only reduce the subsidy it requires but to bring wider economic benefits to the area."

The minister added: "Given our significant financial commitment, we intend to establish a working group to consider how the service and the airport can operate on a more sustainable footing in the future.

"While membership has still to be confirmed, it is expected to include representatives from Transport Scotland, Highland Council, Highlands and Islands Airports Limited, Highlands and Islands Enterprise and local business groups."

When the PSO announcement was made in February, council leader Raymond Bremner – who represents Wick and East Caithness and is chairman of the airport consultative committee – said: “I know that this will have been a huge decision for them to make, and not an easy one, in light of all the financial challenges they face, but it is testament to the hard work by everyone involved in achieving this outcome.”

The PSO was secured after campaigning led by Caithness Chamber of Commerce.

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