Revived daily flights between Inverness and London’s Heathrow have been hailed as a huge success – with 75,000 passengers using the service in its first year.
Business chiefs last night pinpointed the route as a “key contributor” to the booming Highland tourism sector after it emerged that two-thirds of the trips were incoming.
And British Airways bosses revealed that they expected to welcome “even more” passengers onto the flights in the next year.
The vital link to the UK’s hub airport was axed in 1997, before being reinstated after a long campaign on May 3 last year.
Fears were raised at the time that the daily service might struggle to survive, with Heathrow’s boss John Holland-Kaye stressing the need to get “bums on seats”, while warning Highlanders to “use it or lose it”.
But Phyllis Stuart, British Airways’ manager at Inverness, revealed last night that the service had been a major success in its first year, performing in line with the flag carrier’s hopes.
As the airline prepares to mark the first anniversary of the relaunch on Wednesday, she said: “We are delighted that the Inverness-Heathrow route has had such a successful start, flying 75,000 customers to and from the Highland capital.
“We are grateful to the business community and traveling public of Inverness and region as a whole for their continued support for the service.
“It is thanks to their commitment and desire to fly with British Airways that we have had such a successful first year.
“The service continues to perform in line with our expectations and we look forward to welcoming even more passengers on board our aircraft to and from Inverness as we move into our second year of operating the route.”
Highland business leaders believe that the Heathrow service has been contributing to the region’s growing popularity as a tourist destination.
Inglis Lyon, chief executive of Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd (Hial), said: “Two-thirds of the 75,000 who have used the British Airways service are inbound, with visitors connecting from the USA and Europe, which is good news for the city and the region.
“The economy of Inverness and the Highlands is in a good place at the moment, with tourism initiatives such as the North Coast 500, new hotel developments and marketing campaigns such as VisitLochNessInverness.
“A key contributor to this success is the connectivity to Heathrow and the access it provides to the British Airways network across the world.”
Mr Lyon added that the region’s airports were witnessing a “strong period of growth” in passenger numbers, up 15% overall in the last year, with Inverness up 23.5%.
Heathrow is the busiest airport in Europe and one of the busiest in the world.
Highland politicians and economic leaders have backed calls for a controversial third runway to be built at the hub, amid hope it could pave the way to the “Holy Grail” of two flights a day between the airports.
Stewart Nicol, chief executive of Inverness Chamber of Commerce, welcomed the success of the link last night.
“This is an excellent result for the first year of operation for this vital air link between Inverness and Heathrow,” he said.
“It is great to see the route performing to expectations and really important that this upward trend continues.
“The benefits are clearly delivering for the Inverness and Highland economies, enabling easier access to and from the region from across the globe and giving the region’s businessmen and women the chance to seamlessly reach global destinations through the international hub of Heathrow.
“We look forward to future years of continued commercial success for the route.”
The success of the service emerged a week after Scottish Government ministers indicated that they could deliver a major boost to the north economy by axing passenger tax on flights into the region.