October 13, 2008

Empty Flights Cost Taxpayers GBP 300 Per Seat

By David Leask

TAXPAYERS are being forced to pay out more than GBP 300 a seat for air routes with almost no passengers and "zilch" economic benefits, Scotland on Sunday can reveal.

So few people have booked on Argyll Air Services that 27 flights were cancelled in July and August because there were no passengers. Yet the local authority behind the airport scheme still has to pay over GBP 30,000 a month to the airline running the services, whether the flights take off or not.

The payments come on top of an GBP 8.9m upgrade of Oban Airport and its satellite airfields on the islands of Coll and Colonsay.

Argyll business leaders are angry about the cost of the scheme, especially when ferry, road and rail links are also in desperate need of investment.

Stewart Farmer, of the Federation of Small Businesses, yesterday attacked the spending and said: "The economic benefits from this project appears to be zilch."

Figures obtained by Scotland on Sunday show uptake from islanders and people wishing to visit the islands has been very slow. An average of 135 passengers were carried to or from Coll and Tiree a month in July and August. The figure for Colonsay was even lower, at 65. That indicates only around one in four possible tickets were sold and compares with 1,000 passengers flying between Tiree and Glasgow in July.

Basil O'Fee, the managing director of Highland Airways, which operates the flights, admitted demand had been inconsistent. "The numbers have been clumpy," he said. "One day you will get a whole group going and the next day there won't be anybody."

But O'Fee believes that, with better advertising, next summer's results will be improved. "The pre-marketing wasn't very strong," he said.

Argyll and Bute Council declined to say how much they were paying Highland Airways, citing commercial confidentiality. Sources, however, insisted the figure was more than GBP 30,000 a month.

Senior figures in the council, including its former leader Allan Macaskill, believed Oban Airport could turn into the Newquay of the north, providing direct services to Glasgow, Edinburgh and even the continent.

Critics argue that Oban Airport now has less business than it did before its upgrade. Iain MacDonald, chairman of the community council in Ardchattan, the area north of Oban which includes the airport, said: "What was once a small-scale low-cost sustainable operation has become a dwindling asset and financial liability to the public purse.

"Nothing is being done to address the decline. After spending millions of pounds the council have left us much worse off than we were before they started."

A spokesman for the council insisted: "Oban Airport is a wonderful new facility which is a major benefit to the people of Argyll and Bute.

"We are confident the air services will support economic development in the area as well as attracting more visitors."

(c) 2008 Scotland on Sunday. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All rights Reserved.