Scottish Government now talking to UK Government on Wick air routes after MSP’s suggestion

The Scottish Government’s Transport Secretary has admitted that it is now in talks with the UK Government and with the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority about the future of Wick air routes.

Highlands and Islands Labour MSP, David Stewart, is supporting the campaign for a Public Service Obligation (PSO) to protect the Wick Edinburgh and Wick Aberdeen routes following Caithness being left without scheduled air services.

Mr Stewart was told, through an answer to a Parliamentary Question in July, that the Scottish Government had held no talks with the UK Government about the serious situation nor made its own assessment of how the future of Wick John O’Groats Airport could impact on the Caithness and Sutherland area.

Mr Stewart contacted Michael Matheson again, following the PQ answer, urging the Secretary to initiate talks with the UK Government. Mr Stewart stressed that he considered the UK Government may be willing to help given that it has an investment through the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority and the UK Space Agency.

Mr Stewart said today: “I am happy that the Scottish Government has taken this up with its UK counterparts but dismayed that it hasn’t been done before when it is such an obvious move to get everyone involved in finding a solution and hopefully finding some funding too.

“It is also encouraging that Gail Ross MSP is appealing for Nicola Sturgeon to get involved. The prospect of the Scottish Parliament elections is looming large and I suspect this centralising Government is now under increasing pressure to pull something out of the bag to show Caithness and Sutherland are not the forgotten areas of Scotland.

“I understand the argument about Covid-19 hitting the air industry but time is ticking and air routes for Caithness and Sutherland are vital for future development.”

Mr Matheson, in his latest reply to Mr Stewart, said he recognised the issues faced by the Caithness area both specifically in relation to the loss of the Wick-Edinburgh and Wick-Aberdeen air services and more generally.

He added: “It will take the aviation industry some time to recover from the unprecedented impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on route networks. The re-establishment of previously operated routes will not be straightforward in an operating environment where there are fewer airlines. The only State Aid compliant mechanism for providing ongoing subsidy for an air service is a Public Service Obligation (PSO).

“We are considering carefully the business case submitted by the Caithness Chamber of Commerce for the direct subsidy of air services to Wick and will respond as soon as possible. I have been clear that any intervention would require multiple funding partners to restore scheduled services at Wick. We have discussed this issue with the UK Government. We are engaging with the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority as a potential funding partner.”

In the July PQ Mr Matheson told Mr Stewart a PSO “would likely take around nine to 12 months for services to start due to the regulatory and procurement processes required”. Mr Stewart called for rapid movement on the air routes to keep the Far North’s connectivity and to aid development for the future.

The MSP wrote to Mr Matheson, and First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, after Loganair announced the axing of its Edinburgh-Wick service on Friday, March 27.

The MSP had previously asked the Scottish Government for swift action following the collapse of Flybe when the Wick-Aberdeen route was taken over by Eastern Airways which previously ran it under a franchise for Flybe. Mr Stewart argued that the Wick-Aberdeen service was fragile due to falling passenger numbers. Eastern Airways has now withdrawn this route.

Mr Matheson previously said it was considering carefully the business case submitted by Caithness Chamber of Commerce.
• A PSO, under EU transport law, is a permitted state aid which maintains scheduled air services on routes vital for the economic development of the region they serve.