Orcadian Column, 27 July 2023

27 Jul 2023

Summer recess offers a welcome opportunity to spend time at home, even if the Islands Games and a couple of days watching Ashes cricket in Manchester have put an enjoyable spoke in the wheels of those plans recently. Having a break from the twice weekly commute to and from Edinburgh, however, does come as a relief, particularly as travelling anywhere at present seems to be a test of endurance.

Train strikes alongside disruption to ferry and air services must make planning travel akin to spinning a roulette wheel. Certainly, in terms of the latter, my inbox has been deluged with emails lately from constituents highlighting the impact of delayed and cancelled flights. Hospital appointments and family funerals missed; work opportunities lost; and flight connections fouled up all speak to the personal toll such disruption causes. Even where flights leave on time, stress levels are heightened. Indeed, islanders are often opting to travel days in advance, incurring additional accommodation costs, just for peace of mind.

I continue to speak regularly with Loganair’s management about these problems and, it’s fair to say, some of the issues affecting the aviation sector generally are beyond their control. Yet there is still more Loganair can be doing to reduce the risk of disruption. Improving the reliability of their ATR fleet is crucial, of course, and key to this will be a willingness to hold larger numbers of spare components, particularly given the sluggishness of global supply chains due to Brexit and the war in Ukraine.

But communications also need to improve significantly. I have been saying to Loganair for years that they need to have their own staff based in Scottish mainland airports, working alongside the ground-handling teams. This would allow a two-way flow of information, helping keep passengers informed of what’s happening in the event of delays or cancellations but equally importantly, allowing Loganair to understand any specific passenger needs or circumstances that require a more tailored response. In my conversations with Loganair, I know they accept the argument. Unfortunately, so far this has not resulted in the policy being implemented.

Meantime, I genuinely feel for Loganair staff and their ground handling colleagues, who invariably do their best in often challenging circumstances. It is clear though that the failures in communication, alongside the reliability issues, are causing reputational damage: not great news for an airline in the process of being sold, but all the worse for one delivering a lifeline service.

Thankfully, there are no such issues with Loganair’s inter-isles service, as I look to head out to North Ronaldsay later this week to hold a surgery and take part in the Sheep Festival. ‘Island hopping’ is another welcome feature of parliamentary recess, and I have fond memories of last year’s visit where Alistair and I joined a ‘chain gang’ of volunteers, fuelled by KitKats and coffee, in repairing an impressively lengthy stretch of sheep dyke. More of the same on Thursday would be nice.

Talking of which, I wouldn’t mind a few more by-election results like the one in Somerton & Frome last week, where Liberal Democrats took the seat from the Conservatives in a result that came close to breaking the BBC’s famous swingometer. With a General Election expected next year, Liberal Democrats look well set to be part of the change that the country so desperately needs.

Finally, let me finish on similarly positive note, this time by offering hearty congratulations to Stenness on making it to their first Parish Cup final in 87 years. I’m not sure even Jocky Wood was around to report on that one!

Whether it’s Westray or South Ronaldsay they face in the final, it will be a match up that no-one would have predicted at the start of the season but one that promises to be memorable for all the right reasons. While there will certainly be players on both sides with plenty of experience playing for Orkney and even in the Highland League, most will have their footballing glass ceilings set much lower. All of them, however, will be determined to do their Parish proud, which is what makes this competition so special.