Ten years ago, shortly after first being elected as Orkney’s MSP, I held a public meeting in the St Magnus Centre to allow Loganair and Flybe representatives to explain how their new franchise arrangement would work.
Loganair’s long-standing arrangement with BA was coming to an end and people in Orkney were anxious to know what lay ahead for our lifeline services. Those anxieties were not helped, it must be said, by initial indications that, in order to comply with the Flybe business model, passengers might have to pay extra for debit card bookings while also having their baggage allowance restricted. While no pitchforks or flaming torches were unleashed, there was palpable anger in the room.
In the end, a relative calm was restored, thanks largely to Loganair agreeing to absorb additional costs for bookings and honour existing baggage allowances. After four decades of operating these services, Loganair at least recognised that serving island communities required a different approach, one that could not justify layering additional charges on top of the already high cost of air travel.
Ten years on and I found myself back at the St Magnus Centre to discuss the implications of the ending of that same franchise agreement. Both airlines have agreed to go their separate ways from September, but in a decision that caught almost everyone by surprise, Flybe has also now joined forces with Eastern Airways to challenge Loganair on some of their routes, including Kirkwall-Aberdeen and most of those serving Shetland.
Flybe Chief Executive, Christine Ourmieres-Widener was in the Northern Isles this week to explain the rationale for the move and I took the opportunity of meeting with her to discuss her plans and some of the concerns that have emerged since the announcement. While competition could well result in cheaper fares and more choice for customers, it also has the potential to leave both airlines weaker and our lifeline services more vulnerable. If, for example, competing on more profitable routes forces services to be cut on less well-used but still vital routes, our islands would suffer.
As ever, time will tell but it is something that I will be keeping a close eye on over the coming months. Meantime, I stressed to Ms Ourmieres-Widener and her counterpart at Loganair, Jonathan Hinkles the importance of safeguarding existing onward connections to and from the islands.
In the absence of any codeshare or similar agreement between Flybe and Loganair, it is difficult to see how some existing connections can be maintained, at least with the option for customers to buy a through ticket and check in luggage all the way to their final destination. Alternative connections may materialise, and Loganair seem very confident that their current codeshare with BA will be maintained. However, there seems no good reason why Loganair and Flybe cannot work together on those routes where they are not competing, and do so in a way that protects the interests of customers, our island communities and even the airlines themselves.
While I will continue to press for this to happen, I was delighted to secure a small but important victory this week in another campaign I have been fighting recently with respect to our lifeline air services.
The removal from the summer timetable of a mid-morning flight between Kirkwall and Aberdeen went almost unnoticed earlier this year. It quickly became apparent to me, however, that the effect this would have, particularly on certain patients attending hospital appointments in Aberdeen, was going to be serious. Those in the isles, for example, saw any hope of getting to and from appointments in a single day extinguished, with all the extra cost, stress and inconvenience of more overnight stays away from home.
Isles residents were not the only ones affected, though. Indeed, one extremely distressing case involving a family on the mainland was pivotal, I believe, in convincing Loganair to think again. As a result, the mid-morning Kirkwall-Aberdeen service will resume from September.
This decision will come at a financial cost to Loganair but it is the right thing for a lifeline service provider to do. With the advent of competition, that guiding principle simply cannot be lost.