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MAREE TODD:Work continues to secure future of far north air service

By Maree Todd

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Work continues to protect the longer term future of far north air links.
Work continues to protect the longer term future of far north air links.

The announcement last month that the Scottish Government is to continue its support for the Wick-Aberdeen air service for another year, was very welcome.

In addition to the Scottish Government’s direct support for the service, it continues to subsidise the operation of Wick John O’Groats Airport, bringing the total financial support for the route and the airport to over £3 million in 2024-25. This is a substantial investment which demonstrates the SNP government’s clear commitment to tackling the challenges facing our far north communities, even amidst an exceptionally difficult financial situation.

In making the case for continued support for the service, I was keen to ensure the Cabinet Secretary for Transport was aware of the difficulties the service has experienced. Established during Covid, the route initially struggled due to reduced confidence in air travel and limited onward flight options from Aberdeen. With the economy also in a dire state, travel for leisure became unaffordable for many folk, impacting the service’s ability to attract passengers. Yet, thanks to the dedicated efforts of the Caithness Chamber of Commerce and the Highland Council, confidence in the service has been rebuilt with passenger numbers now growing.

In the Scottish Government’s recently published Addressing Rural Depopulation Plan, good transport links are recognised as crucial to reversing depopulation and unlocking economic opportunities. Projects such as the Inverness and Cromarty Firth Green Free Port and the Sutherland Space Port will help stimulate economic growth across the Highlands, including in Caithness, but reliable transport links will be needed to support these projects and encourage further business activity.

Although the economic benefits of the route are undeniable, its social benefits are equally significant. To sustain our rural communities, we need more people to settle in the Highlands and a good transport system which connects the far north to other regions of Scotland helps support mobility and improve access to services. But we also need a mix of accessible and affordable transport options to ensure our rural communities are well connected. The Scottish Budget places significant emphasis on this, with a commitment to invest nearly £3.9 billion in transport across Scotland. Of this amount, almost £2.5 billion is allocated specifically to improve the public transport network. This includes investing more than £425 million in bus services through the Network Support Grant, and concessionary travel schemes for under-22s, and older and disabled people.

For the Wick-Aberdeen service to thrive, it is essential that the strong and clear support from locals people and businesses translates into increased passenger numbers. Given the Scottish Government’s significant financial commitment, it intends 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, I understand this is expected to include representatives from Transport Scotland, Highland Council, HIAL, HIE and local business groups.

This positive funding decision is testament to the power of work undertaken by the Chamber and the Highland Council. I also want to extend my appreciation to Cllr Raymond Bremner who worked closely with me to help make the case for ongoing funding, and to the Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Fiona Hyslop, for recognising the value of the route to our far north communities.

n Maree Todd is SNP MSP for Caithness, Sutherland and Ross.

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