Orcadian Column, 28 September 2023

28 Sep 2023

The Prime Minister chose the eve of Climate Week to announce he was watering down his environmental commitments. With a general election due next year, Rishi Sunak has calculated that delaying targets for banning new diesel and petrol vehicles and gas boilers will revive his party’s prospects at the polls. This cynical short termism looks set to backfire, as the move was roundly criticised not just by environmental campaigners but senior business representatives and many Tory parliamentarians.

The UK’s climate targets are certainly stretching. The problem with shifting the goalposts, however, is that it creates confusion and uncertainty: a toxic mix for businesses trying to plan and invest. In the end, Mr Sunak’s electoral gamble risks costing jobs, pushing up energy bills and damaging the UK’s reputation.

Tory MSP, Maurice Golden warned this week that the Prime Minister was dragging environment policy into the ‘culture wars’. He pointed to the broad political consensus on the environment that has allowed progress to be made with ambitious, binding targets. While insufficiently radical for some, these targets have at least set a clear direction of travel irrespective of which party is in power. It now appears that some in Mr Golden’s party want to open up climate change as another ‘dividing line’ at the next election.

The Prime Minister’s move also cuts across Scotland’s efforts to achieve its climate ambitions, as I acknowledged in a debate at Holyrood last week. Of course, the Scottish Government has missed its emissions targets in eight of the last 12 years; been repeatedly criticised by the UK Climate Change Committee for lacking detailed action plans: and made an unholy mess of introducing a bottle return scheme. Even so, it’s hard not to sympathise with the Environment Secretary, Mairi McAllan whose task of getting Scotland back on track in meeting its targets is now a whole lot harder.

Ms McAllan’s Green coalition colleagues would argue that cancelling flights would help. On lifeline services, however, delays and cancellations are the last thing that’s needed. This week, sadly, has seen yet more widespread disruption across Loganair’s routes and an inevitable flood of emails and messages into my office.

It's fair to say, the aviation sector generally has had a torrid time over recent years. Covid, Brexit and the war in Ukraine have all played a part in increasing costs, gumming up supply chains and making it more difficult to recruit and retain staff. Nevertheless, it surely must be possible at this point to anticipate these factors and put in place more effective contingencies.

Without wishing to diminish the impact on anyone travelling to and from Orkney who has experienced disruption, it is always those attending hospital visits for whom I feel the most. For often frail and elderly patients, to have to endure additional stress and prolonged waits on top of whatever treatment they have received or are about to receive is intolerable. Across the board, however, the experience at present is more stressful and invariably more costly, with additional time away and accommodation now being factored in routinely.

Most weeks, I’m in touch with Loganair’s customer services team, following up complaints and/or applications for compensation on behalf of constituents. I have always found the team helpful and efficient, though it’s clear they are often overwhelmed by the volumes of correspondence and calls coming in from disgruntled customers.

Likewise, Loganair staff at Kirkwall airport deserve credit for their efforts in supporting passengers affected by disruption. This customer-facing role is seldom easy, particularly when information about what is happening is thin on the ground, much like the current catering options at the airport, a separate concern I continue to raise with HIAL.

It’s difficult to overstate the importance of good communications with customers and this issue features prominently during my regular meetings with Loganair’s Chief Executive, Jonathan Hinkles. While improving overall reliability of the service is obviously the number one priority, better communication and tailored support for passengers caught up in delays or cancellations is also desperately needed. That will require Loganair to commit additional staff resources in the mainland Scottish airports but given the reputational damage at present, that is a price the airline cannot afford not to pay.

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