Orkney’s MSP, Liam McArthur, has renewed his calls for isles-based businesses to be brought back into the Air Discount Scheme (ADS).
It follows a report by Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) suggesting that cheaper air travel for business passengers is needed to strengthen the viability of lifeline routes.
Introduced in 2006 by then Lib Dem Transport Minister, Tavish Scott, the Air Discount Scheme offers a 50% discount on flights for islanders.
At that time, work-related travel was included in recognition that providing a more level playing field for island businesses was key to sustaining population.
However, in April 2011, SNP Ministers chose to remove businesses from the scheme, claiming it broke EU rules.
This excuse was later dropped with an admission that the move was a cost-cutting measure.
As part of ongoing studies into the impact of travel disruption caused by ageing ferry fleets, HIE has said that addressing affordability and availability of air travel to and from islands should be a “priority”.
HIE added that:
“The potential benefits [of cheaper air travel for business] would include supporting businesses based in remote areas to access markets and customers, helping aid wider economic recovery.
“Moreover, an uptick in business travel should help to strengthen the viability of island routes, many of which are continuing to see fragile demand.”
The latest analysis supports earlier research by Highlands and Islands Transport Partnership in 2016 which found 61% of businesses confirming that the cut in ADS had had a negative impact on staff productivity, turnover and operating costs.
Mr McArthur took the opportunity at First Minister’s Questions today to repeat his call to reverse the cut to ADS for businesses.
In response, however, Deputy First Minister, John Swinney refused to acknowledge the concerns raised by the Scottish Government’s own enterprise agency.
Commenting afterwards, Mr McArthur said:
“The Air Discount Scheme has delivered long-lasting benefits to our island communities since its introduction in 2006.
“However, the decision by SNP Ministers to remove isles-based businesses from the scheme without any consultation was always short-sighted.
“At the time, Ministers tried to pin the blame on the EU but were later forced to admit that it was a cost-cutting exercise.
“We have known for some time that this cut has put many island businesses at a competitive disadvantage.
“It now appears that even the Scottish Government’s own enterprise agency is sounding the alarm.
“HIE is right to point out that by making these lifeline air services more affordable, the government can make them more resilient.
“If they are serious about supporting island businesses and allowing them to compete on a more level playing field, this is advice that John Swinney and his colleagues would do well to heed.”