My Orcadian Column 8/11/18

It was only a matter of weeks after my election as Orkney’s MSP in 2007 that I first met a constituent with a complaint about their experience of travelling back from a hospital appointment in Aberdeen.  Since then, sadly, this has been a recurrent theme

I remember well the woman’s high praise for the care she had received from staff at Aberdeen Royal Infirmary, after what was a lengthy and complex operation.  She was also highly complimentary about how well she had been looked after by the Red Cross, who transported her safely to the airport for her flight home. 

Upon arrival at the airport, however, things began to take a turn for the worse.  Already feeling exhausted after her operation and nauseous from the medication, my constituent explained how the long walk to the departure gate left her even more light-headed.  She then spent hours in a drafty corridor waiting for a flight that was repeatedly delayed before finally being cancelled. 

By the time she got back to Orkney the following day, the poor woman was at her wits end after an ordeal that was the precise opposite of what her doctor would have ordered. 

As I say, this was no isolated incident and such examples have continued to be an all too common feature of my casework over the years.

It is also why I have spent the last five years or so campaigning hard for isles patients, returning from hospital appointments in Aberdeen, to be given access to facilities at the airport that allow them a little more comfort and privacy.  At a point when the airport has been undergoing a multi-million pound redevelopment, this struck me as a timely and entirely reasonable demand.  Indeed, it seemed very much in keeping with the obligation on the airport and airlines to treat their customers with dignity and respect.

I am absolutely delighted, therefore, that this long-running campaign appears to be coming to a successful conclusion at long, long last.  On Friday, I met senior managers at Aberdeen airport who confirmed that agreement has been reached with Eastern Airways, who have kindly offered to make available their executive lounge free of charge for isles patients.

As those who travel regularly through Aberdeen airport will know, Eastern Airways’ lounge is adjacent to the gates used most often for flights to Orkney and Shetland.  In the past, particularly when Loganair flights were being delayed routinely, I know constituents often felt abandoned down this corridor; out of sight and out of mind.  The arrangement with Eastern Airways, however, has the potential to make a virtue of this location.

That said, there is much work still to do before the new scheme comes into operation in January 2019.  Details of who will be eligible, for example, need to be clarified as not all isles patients will require access to the lounge, while some very young or elderly passengers who have not been in Aberdeen for treatment, may well benefit from the facilities on offer.

There is then the question of how the lounge, which is currently unstaffed and used by Eastern Airways’ commercial customers, will work in practice.  It is safe to assume, I think, that the needs of an oil worker heading home to Humberside are going to be quite different from those of a patient returning to Kirkwall after cancer treatment.  In that sense, making sure that anyone sharing this space does not feel ill at ease or inconvenienced will be vitally important. 

Sensibly, Aberdeen airport’s management plan to continue discussions over the coming weeks with the island health boards, CLAN and Red Cross to flesh out the details.  Alongside Loganair, all have been pivotal in this successful campaign and will undoubtedly have invaluable insights into the practicalities of making the scheme work effectively.  

Teething problems, of course, are likely and lessons will need to be learned along the way.  I hope, however, the woman who came to see me all those years ago, and the very many since, take some satisfaction and no little pride in what they have helped to achieve for those who follow in their footsteps.

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