August 15, 2008

Airport Opens Late and Over Budget


SCOTLAND's newest airport was officially opened yesterday, more than a year behind schedule and nearly three times over budget.

Oban airport will provide a link with the islands of Coll, Colonsay and Tiree, in a scheme it is hoped will boost the Highland economy and stem depopulation.

It marks the end of a project conceived by Argyll and Bute Council nine years ago, and long mired in controversy.

Initially earmarked at GBP 3.25 million, and seen as a way of providing lifeline air services between the islands, the local authority's ambition grew to the extent that its former leader, Allan Macaskill, envisioned connecting Oban with Glasgow, Edinburgh, and destinations further afield in Europe.

However, the Oban airport and two satellite airstrips at Coll and Colonsay were only granted licences for subsidised scheduled flights from the Civil Aviation Authority this year, despite the fact the routes should have been operational last August.

It is understood some councillors envisioned the scheme as a means of turning Oban into the Scottish Newquay, the Cornwall resort which in recent years has expanded its routes and attracted budget airlines.

Three years ago the then First Minister, Jack McConnell, told a meeting of the Convention of the Highlands and Islands that the upgrades would help drive forward a Highland renaissance. However, none of the industry's main players has expressed an interest in coming to the Hebridean hub, with Highland Airways the sole provider of flights, at a running cost of GBP 900,000 over three years.

After numerous technical and legal difficulties, it is understood the initiative has cost close to GBP 9 million to complete.

The council sought to put the difficulties of the project behind it yesterday as the airport was officially opened by transport minister Stewart Stevenson.

Flights will operate on days when there are no ferry services during winter, and on a similar frequency during the summer.

There will also be flights on Fridays and Sundays to allow children being educated at Oban the chance to get home for weekends, for a nominal fee of GBP 1, which has been set by the council.

Dick Walsh, leader of the local authority, said: "We are confident that the Argyll Air Services will support economic development in the area as well as attracting more visitors."

Duncan Macintyre, the council's roads and transport spokesperson, said the new air network would help bolster some of the most isolated communities in the country.

"Oban airport will counter population decline and support the sustainability of island economies," he said.

Mr Stevenson said: "The new air services will improve the ease with which residents can access vital services such as specialist health care, education and business opportunities, removing the need for a three-day trip."

The project was funded by the Scottish Government, Argyll and Bute Council, Highlands and Islands Enterprise, Hitrans, European Regional Development Fund and the Oban Common Good Fund.

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