UK Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has been told to say sorry to Inverness Airport after we uncovered private memos which show his own government approved a sanctions-busting flight from the Highland capital to Moscow.
The Tory MP had claimed on social media in February that Inverness Airport had “failed to comply” with regulations banning Russian flights.
The remark was made by Mr Shapps amid a social media spat with SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford about a departure from Inverness one day after the rules were issued.
But memos we have obtained reveal how the private charter to Moscow was given the go-ahead by the UK Home Office’s Border Force, as well as the police’s Special Branch.
Cleared for take-off
A transcript also shows that national air traffic controllers told Inverness Airport crews that they had “no reason to intervene” to block the flight.
They said they would “expect contact” from Mr Shapps’ department for transport if there was “anything specific” about the departure.
The flight from Inverness Airport is one of only two from the UK since the restrictions were introduced after Russia invaded Ukraine.
A Notice of Air Missions (NOTAM) had been issued banning all scheduled services operated by aircraft owned, operated, leased or registered in Russia in UK airspace on Friday, February 25.
But the next morning, an Estonian-registered jet operated by a private charter firm left Inverness for Moscow.
‘Family of three on board’
We understand a family of three was on board the flight.
At the time, Mr Blackford raised concerns about how the airport operator had been notified of the new regulations.
He also said the flight exposed a loophole and argued the rules should be tightened to cover aircraft registered in countries other than Russia.
Mr Shapps responded on social media: “As I know from being a pilot, it’s the duty of ALL aviators to check NOTAMs and comply. Below was published on Friday & the fact that the airfield in question failed to comply led to the alert being sent.”
Grant Shapps owes an apology to Inverness Airport.”
– Ian Blackford MP
Mr Blackford, the MP for Ross, Skye and Lochaber, said the newly-released memos confirmed what he had believed when he first highlighted the flight.
He said: “Grant Shapps owes an apology to Inverness Airport because Inverness Airport did exactly the right thing.
“Let’s be clear, this flight should not have gone, and the person who is responsible for that departure is Grant Shapps.
“The simple fact of the matter is that the UK Government, through its agencies, did not do what is required to make sure that Inverness Airport could have stopped this flight departing.
“Grant Shapps has blamed everybody else for not speaking the truth on this. He has blamed Inverness Airport, he has blamed me.
“We now know fine well it was himself and his office are at fault for not making sure this type of flight should not have been able to take place.”
Here’s what the memos reveal
Memos relating to the flight were released to us by the Scottish Government under freedom of information laws.
They include a transcript of the conversation between Inverness Airport tower and the national air traffic control services (NATS) centre at Prestwick on the morning of February 26.
The exchange shows confusion about the rules, with the Prestwick Centre official saying: “The information at our end has been… umm…it’s not that it’s been sketchy, it’s just that obviously people reacting very quickly to what’s been happening.”
The air traffic control employee later adds: “In terms of our instructions as well, the only other thing we’ve had… is… yeah just saying about… well essentially that we would expect contact from the DFT if there was anything specific…
“And in the absence of that…umm…we shouldn’t take any action, basically.”
UK Government refused to release info
The UK Government’s DFT refused to provide an answer to the same FOI request on the grounds that it would cost too much to gather the information.
One of the Scottish Government’s documents shows a note prepared for SNP Transport Secretary Michael Matheson, and copied to First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and Deputy First Minister John Swinney, two days after the flight had taken off.
It said: “NATS confirmed that the flight could depart.
“The ground handling company at Inverness also confirmed that they had consulted UK Border Force and Special Branch, both of which confirmed that there was no issue with allowing the aircraft to depart.”
The officials speculated that the lack of an objection from Border Force and Special Branch could mean that the passengers were not Russian nationals.
Last night, a Highlands and Islands Airport Ltd (HIAL) spokesman said: “We carried out the instructions received from the authorities at the time to the letter.
“Our actions were correct and appropriate and this has been borne out by an examination of the record.”
NATS previously denied giving the go ahead for the flight, saying it did not need to because the flight was compliant.
‘No clearance was given’
“Due to the flight having a compliant flight plan, no clearance to operate the flight was given by NATS nor required to be given by NATS for the flight to depart from HIAL,” it said in March.
A Department for Transport spokesman said: “The UK has imposed a ban on all aircraft owned, chartered or operated by a person connected with Russia, or which is registered in Russia, flying in UK airspace.”
He added: “It is the responsibility of aviation stakeholders, including airports, to ensure they are monitoring and complying with NOTAMs.”