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Councillors press for PSO commitment with Wick passenger numbers on the rise

By Alan Hendry

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The Wick/Aberdeen service is operated by Eastern Airways.
The Wick/Aberdeen service is operated by Eastern Airways.

Councillors have highlighted a 25 per cent rise in passenger numbers at Wick John O'Groats Airport as they fight for the continuation of a vital Scottish Government subsidy.

There is unease over the future of the public service obligation (PSO) on the Wick/Aberdeen route beyond the end of next month, at a time when Wick has been outperforming other airports across the Highlands and Islands Airports Limited network.

Highland Council leader Raymond Bremner made it clear this week that the local authority has done "everything it possibly can" to support the route and spoke of the "urgent necessity" of a positive decision from Scotland’s transport minister Fiona Hyslop.

Wick provost Jan McEwan warned: "The impact on our economy would be devastating if we lose this funding."

Both represent the Wick and East Caithness ward and Councillor Bremner is chairman of the airport consultative committee.

Highland Council issued a statement on Monday saying it is unable to confirm whether funding will be available to support the PSO after March 31.

The PSO is provided on the basis of £1.3 million annually, with £1m committed by the Scottish Government and £300,000 by the council, with flights operated by Eastern Airways. The local authority said its portion of the funding "remains committed" but "there is uncertainty around the position of the Scottish Government".

Wick air links are vital for the area's economic growth, says Councillor Jan McEwan.
Wick air links are vital for the area's economic growth, says Councillor Jan McEwan.

The Scottish Government's support for the PSO was committed by the then transport secretary Michael Matheson in February 2021, with funding starting in 2022/23 to coincide with the launch of services from Wick – running for two years initially, with a further two years (up to 2025/26) subject to passenger growth in the first two years.

The council has been liaising with officials at the government agency Transport Scotland since June last year. Following a meeting in August, a case for continued funding was produced by the council and delivered in early October.

As of January 2024, in its second year of operation, the service had carried 9252 passengers compared with 8835 in the first year and was showing an average growth year-to-date of 25 per cent. By the end of March it is expected that the service will have taken more than 11,000 passengers.

Councillor Bremner said: “I wrote to the cabinet secretary on February 12, given the urgent necessity of requiring a decision in respect of the Scottish Government’s continued support for the PSO operating from Wick. A lot of work went into making sure that the Scottish Government and Transport Scotland had all the necessary information on which to make a positive decision.

“Since that information was submitted, Wick airport has continued to see increased passenger numbers and, in this current year, is the top-performing airport in respect of increased passenger numbers year-on-year in the HIAL portfolio of airports.

"In October and December of last year, passenger numbers had increased by 25 per cent and 22 per cent year-to-date respectively.

"Highland Council has done everything it possibly can, including its commitment to the continuation of funding which, at the beginning of the PSO, was known to be £1.2m. I sincerely hope that the cabinet secretary endorses the commitment evidenced to date by so many.”

A spokesperson for Transport Scotland said: “Scottish ministers are considering the continuation of funding contribution for the Wick to Aberdeen service beyond March 31, 2024, as part of the annual budget process and will confirm the position as soon as possible.”

Councillor McEwan, along with Councillor Matthew Reiss (Thurso and Northwest Caithness), discussed the Wick/Aberdeen air route and other issues with constituency MSP Maree Todd at the end of last week.

Councillor McEwan said: "This service is vital to our economic growth for business and leisure and I believe it should be extended to cover flights to other parts of Scotland. My personal conclusion regarding this funding is not very promising – I do hope I am wrong."

Ms Todd, the SNP MSP for Caithness, Sutherland and Ross, said: "I have written twice to the transport secretary, she attended the Caithness Transport Forum meeting in January, and I am confident that she is well informed about the issues and will carefully consider the case for the PSO as the budget process proceeds.

"I am really encouraged by the growth in passenger numbers and I previously shared those figures with the transport secretary, so she is aware of that improvement."

Passengers disembark after arriving at Aberdeen Airport on the first of the reinstated flights from Wick in April 2022. Picture: Alan Hendry
Passengers disembark after arriving at Aberdeen Airport on the first of the reinstated flights from Wick in April 2022. Picture: Alan Hendry

The contract between Highland Council and Eastern Airways is for three years, with an option to extend for a fourth.

The council says Wick/Aberdeen service "has consistently exceeded pre-Covid passenger numbers for the route".

At a meeting of the Royal Burgh of Wick Community Council earlier this month, Councillor Bremner said the encouraging increase in passengers using Wick John O’Groats Airport was proof that local people were "very much investing" in the Aberdeen route.

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

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