Nicola Sturgeon has insisted that the Scottish Government remains “absolutely determined” to safeguard tax-free flights from the Highlands and islands.
The First Minister dismissed claims from airport bosses in the central belt that the commitment was holding back economic growth.
Since 2001, travellers from airports in the Highlands and islands have been exempt from Air Passenger Duty (APD), and the Scottish Government had been progressing legislation to use new powers to replace the levy with a new Air Departure Tax (ADT).
The SNP hoped to cut the tax in half, before scrapping it, but the move was shelved last year after it emerged that permission from the European Commission would be needed to retain the Highland discount when the new legislation comes into force.
However, it was reported last week that managers at Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen airports were frustrated that ministers had failed to carry out their pledge to halve APD, and that the needs of Inverness Airport were putting an “anchor on growth in the rest of Scotland”.
David Stewart, Labour MSP for the Highlands and Islands, raised the issue with Ms Sturgeon at First Minister’s questions in Holyrood yesterday.
He warned that removing the exemption would have “potentially damaging consequences for businesses and communities across my region”.
Ms Sturgeon ruled out any backtracking on the exemption, saying: “It is not just the case that I can give that assurance – the actions that we have taken to date demonstrate that we are absolutely determined to protect the Highlands and Islands exemption.
“We have taken the decision that ADT cannot be introduced and that some policy changes that we want to make therefore cannot happen until we have resolved the issue of the exemption.
“We continue to take steps to try to get the UK Government, with us, to come up with solutions.”
The SNP leader added: “I would certainly not support anybody who wants to kill off the exemption.
“We understand that the exemption is important for the economy and connectivity of the Highlands and Islands, which is why we are taking action to try to protect it.”
Speaking afterwards, Mr Stewart said: “This is an extremely important exemption for the region, also making regional routes more viable and sustainable.
“I will continue to stand up for the Highlands and Islands on this one.”