I first met Scott and Phoebe Preston back in June. The meeting in parliament was hosted by my Shetland colleague, Tavish Scott, who also happens to be Scott and Phoebe’s local MSP.
Discussion centred on the web-based campaign the couple had launched, demanding cheaper fares on the lifeline air services serving Scotland’s three main island groups. The campaign was an instant success, capturing the public imagination and attracting thousands of signatures in a matter of days.
The extent of that success was borne out this week when Transport Minister, Derek Mackay finally confirmed during a debate on empowering island communities that support under the Air Discount Scheme is to be raised from 40% to 50%. Tavish and I have spent months calling on Mr Mackay to make this change, to make our lifeline air services more affordable. Without the drive and determination shown by Scott and Phoebe, however, and their ability to mobilise so much support in such a short space of time, it is highly unlikely the Scottish Government would have relented.
And this is not the Prestons’ first taste of success. Earlier this summer, after detailed discussions with Scott and Phoebe, Loganair agreed to look at introducing a new ‘compassionate fare’. This is now in place, offering lower cost fares for those who find they need to travel at short notice due to a family bereavement or serious illness.
Cynics might argue that it is selling seats at the last minute, which otherwise would not be used. However, this is unfair and I think both Loganair and the Prestons deserve great credit for addressing the needs of an admittedly small number of travellers, who will not now have to pay top whack for flights at a time of severe stress.
As it happens, I was speaking to a constituent this week who has already taken advantage of the scheme. Encouragingly, she confirmed that Loganair staff are adopting a common sense approach when applying the eligibility rules for the ‘compassionate fare’.
Less encouragingly, this conversation took place while I was patiently waiting in Kirkwall airport for yet another delayed flight. Since the start of September, I can only remember a couple of my flights being on time and the previous three have had a combined delay of over ten hours.
In some senses, I have been lucky. The only ‘victims’ of my delayed flights have been a surgery in Stromness, a couple of meetings with constituents and an attendance record at the Education and Culture Committee that has long since ceased to be exemplary. I have even managed to use the time to catch up on casework, write a couple of speeches and make my secretary’s life a misery by bombarding her with emails.
But the disruption on all routes in and out of Orkney over recent weeks has had very serious consequences. I have heard from patients whose operations at Aberdeen Royal Infirmary have been postponed, in some cases by many weeks. CLAN have been particularly vocal about this on behalf of cancer sufferers.
Local firms have lost out on business opportunities, while I know of students threatened with being kicked off courses due to a ‘failure’ to attend classes on the mainland. Meanwhile, more and more constituents tell me they are travelling south a day early to avoid problems, if not the inevitable additional costs involved.
These and other examples are ones I continue to use in my discussions with Loganair to highlight the effect the on-going lack of reliability is having. I am assured that steps are being taken to address the problem, including recruitment of engineers and new facilities to store more spare parts.
I accept there may not be a quick solution. However, I have been raising concerns about the number and length of delays due to ‘technical’ problems for over three years. We are well beyond the stage of ‘quick solutions’.
It was good, therefore, to hear Derek Mackay confirm to parliament this week that he is engaged on this issue. Having seen what public and political pressure can deliver in reducing the cost of our lifeline air services, hopefully the same combination can now help secure improved reliability.