'Fight on our hands' to save Wick-Aberdeen flights, claim MSPs
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Concerns have been raised that subsidised flights between Wick and Aberdeen could be under threat next year when the funding is reviewed.
The public service obligation (PSO) route was secured after campaigning led by the Caithness Chamber of Commerce, and is funded by Scottish Government agency Transport Scotland and Highland Council.
Several Highland MSPs have now pledged to work together to “save the service” after it emerged that the decision to continue backing the flights would be taken in the context of a Scottish Government budget that is under “significant pressure”.
Highlands and Islands Labour MSP Rhoda Grant, along with Conservatives Douglas Ross, Edward Mountain, Donald Cameron and Jamie Halcro Johnston, described a letter from the transport secretary Fiona Hyslop as “ominous”.
Writing to Caithness, Sutherland and Ross MSP Maree Todd (SNP) last month, Ms Hyslop said that passenger numbers using the service remained “significantly below what was projected in the original business case”.
“For the original offer of Scottish Government support in 2021, passenger growth was in reference to these projections with our future funding being dependent on a growth in numbers,” the letter stated.
It added: “You are aware of the significant pressure that the Scottish Government budget faces in future years. Any decision on contributing to the funding of the service beyond 31 March 2024 must be taken in this context, and will also take account of the further information to be provided by Highland Council. That decision will be taken as part of the 2024-25 Budget process.”
The five MSPs have requested a meeting with the transport secretary to make their case for retaining the subsidy for the airline route.
Rhoda Grant said: “This letter is ominous, and I think we have a fight on our hands to save this service.
“This is a lifeline service that connects Caithness to Aberdeen. The county is facing severe depopulation and alternative modes of transport such as road and rail are poor. It is vital that this service continues.”
Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross added: “It is vital to support these lifeline services from Wick and I am happy to work across the political spectrum to achieve this.”
Donald Cameron said: “The loss of this important service would not only be a bitter blow for local residents and businesses, but it could result in long-term economic harm for Caithness. It is vital that this PSO remains in place.”
Earlier this year, it emerged that passenger numbers at Wick John O’Groats Airport had increased year on year by 29.5 per cent, although this comparative figure covered a period from before the PSO flights began in April 2022.
The airport had been without scheduled flights since early 2020 when Edinburgh and Aberdeen links were withdrawn. The airport continued to operate private flights including for the offshore industries during this time.
Dougie Cook, general manager north for HIAL, said in July: “Wick remains one of the key airports in the HIAL group and the increase in passenger numbers will hopefully encourage new business and tourism opportunities in the area.”
In response to the concerns, Maree Todd explained that, as with any contract receiving public money, the Wick-Aberdeen PSO would be reviewed on its value to the taxpayer and against the criteria agreed in the Scottish Government's offer.
“Whilst I appreciate the criteria set in relation to passenger growth numbers, I have emphasised to the transport minister the wider economic and social benefits of the Wick-Aberdeen route,” she said.
“I have also highlighted the challenges the service has experienced. The route was established during a time when the aviation industry was dealing with the impact of Covid-19. Due to low confidence in air travel, a scarcity of available onward flights from Aberdeen, and economic pressures limiting disposable income, the service experienced a slow first year.
“Since then, the Chamber and the Highland Council have worked tirelessly to restore and build confidence in the service, which is reflected in the increase in passenger numbers.
“I am aware that many of my constituents depend on the service for business, leisure, and access to healthcare services in Aberdeen. I will continue to engage with the Scottish Government to ensure these factors, along with the broader economic advantages to the far north, are taken into account ahead of future decisions relating to the PSO.”
Highland Council says it has submitted a substantive and detailed review supporting the case for a continued PSO to the Scottish Government and is awaiting a response. The council says it is committed to the PSO.
Raymond Bremner, the council leader and a councillor for Wick and East Caithness, who is also chairman of the Wick John O’Groats Airport joint consultative committee, said: “We have continued to make the case that Wick airport has a positive future and we have worked hard to ensure that this is the case. The PSO was launched in the wake of coming out of Covid restrictions and passenger numbers are now much more positive.
"This is an essential service needed to support the local economy and we await the outcome by the Scottish Government of the review report that was submitted.”
Trudy Morris, chief executive of Caithness Chamber of Commerce, said: “Lifeline air connectivity is vital to our businesses and communities, and an essential component in the overall transport connectivity to and from the region.
“Uncertainty and threat to the service is a very real and complex concern. Ultimately, vital transport infrastructure is a key factor in stimulating business and economic growth and creating jobs, connecting our region physically to markets and opportunities.
“Government decision-making must reflect confidence in the long-term vision of our region, supporting our rural economies to thrive.”