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Calls for protection for island flights after Loganair move to winter timetable early

A sudden timetable shift "has caused widespread concern in Uist," the Comhairle says.

Aircraft at Benbecula Airport
A plane on Benbecula Airport's runway. Image: Sandy McCook/DC Thomson.

Western Isles Council has called for the government to step in and protect flights between Glasgow and Benbecula.

The demand came after the sudden announcement that Loganair would be bringing its winter timetable forward by almost two months.

Loganair said the move was to provide “greater certainty” to customers, and was a step they would have preferred not to take.

But it has caused “widespread concern” in Uist, the Comhairle says.

Islanders who rely on the air service for their employment have been the hardest hit, they say.

“These are the people we need to keep in Uist,” Uisdean Robertson, Chair of Transportation, added.

“Many have underlined how this decision makes them reconsider the viability of their continuing to live in Uist.”

The Comhairle believes that Uist, along with Barra and Tiree, should be under a Public Services Obligation.

Loganair say the conditions for PSO are “unlikely to be met”. Transport Scotland seem to agree.

But what would happen if it became a reality?

What is a PSO?

Transport Scotland describes a Public Services Obligation as “obligations imposed on a route to provide a set specification of service”.

This means that flights on routes under a PSO have to operate regularly and consistently.

It also means that planes will fly to and from the areas even if they don’t have many passengers. Usually, airlines will require a certain capacity to make a flight worthwhile.

And it’s not just about whether or not the flight will run. A PSO also lowers prices for islanders, making sure that getting to the mainland is affordable as well as possible.

What areas do they currently cover?

PSOs are currently in place to cover routes from Glasgow to Tiree, Campbeltown, and Uist’s neighbour, Barra.

A small plane landing on a beach.
Loganair operates daily flights between Barra and Glasgow. Image: James Fraser/Shutterstock.

Mr Robertson praised their implementation, saying that the model “works so well” for the community.

Who can put them in place?

The Comhairle acknowledged that “responsibility for the introduction of a PSO would rest with Transport Scotland“.

It’s up to them to decide whether or not an area is eligible. And, in a move that will no doubt frustrate many in Uist, Transport Scotland has said it has “no plans” to implement a Glasgow-Benbecula PSO.

What do Loganair say?

A spokesperson for Loganair said: “It is within the Comhairle’s remit to advance proposals as it sees fit, even where such proposals would clearly need new Government funding to deliver them.

“However, the conditions for a PSO imposition are unlikely to be met, even before the task of finding new money to pay for it could begin.

“As previously stated, Loganair’s early move to the winter timetable for Benbecula-Glasgow was made to provide greater certainty amid delays in the delivery of our new aircraft.

“While we would prefer not to have taken this step, it’s crucial we take action to enable travellers to plan accordingly.”

Why isn’t Uist eligible?

In a statement, Transport Scotland said that the “commercial nature of the current service” meant that they would not “impose” a PSO.

“We would only consider a PSO if the existing commercial air service ceased to operate and an alternative operator could not be found to serve the route on a commercial basis,” they said.

Councillor Uisdean Robertson
Councillor Uisdean Robertson. Image: Comhairle nan Eilean Siar.

But Mr Robertson argues that the winter timetable row shows that islanders “cannot rely on receiving a service that meets the needs of the community through the current model of commercial provision”.

It’s time, he suggests, for the “Government to step in and put in place a service that does meet the connectivity needs of Uist”.

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