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  • Ian Ritchie : Business AM

Airport policy flies in the face of common sense

Scottish business is suffering from the lack of any proper direct international air links

AS A RELATIVELY SMALL northern European country, geographically remote from its major markets, effective and competitive air travel should be a top priority for Scotland. Actually, almost all aspects of aviation are outside the scope of the devolution settlement and are handled on a UK basis. So, with an election coming up, how well is the UK Government doing for us here in Scotland? In short – it’s not good.

Tax. Shortly after the 1997 election, Labour doubled the airline levy tax, which had been introduced by the Conservatives, from £5 to £10 per trip. In Treasury terms, of course, this is a “good tax” since it costs almost nothing to collect.

Rail journeys are not taxed, even first class ones, but air journeys, even the Ryanair £19 cheapos, are. Since most business trips in England are by rail or car, but most Scots have to get on a plane, it is hard to escape the conclusion that this airline levy is, in effect, is a tax on doing business based in Scotland. The treasury team that did this was Gordon Brown, Helen Liddell and Alistair Darling. You would have thought they might have noticed.

Airport Ownership. If an airline can’t reach a good deal on operating a service into Glasgow Airport, it can always try negotiating with Edinburgh – right? Wrong.

The same company, BAA, owns both Edinburgh and Glasgow, along with Aberdeen, Heathrow, Gatwick and Stanstead. Anywhere else, this is called a monopoly.

Does BAA care if we get transatlantic flights into Scotland? Not really, by passing you through Heathrow or Gatwick, they get your business twice.

Airport Infrastructure. There was a time when far sighted local US politicians were building new airports in key locations, such as Chicago and Atlanta, in order to serve as hubs for the growing cross continental air travel market. These developments have brought huge economic benefit to their regions.

While all this was going on, our leading politicians thought that Prestwick, in a remote corner of Ayrshire was the perfect location for Scotland’s international airport. The two key Tory Scottish Secretaries behind this policy of course, George Younger and Ian Lang, were both Ayrshire MPs.

Scotland is actually on the flight path between much of Europe and North America. A substantial hub airport based in central Scotland, beside railway links and motorways, and serviced by a major international airline, could lead to a powerful network of services between major US and European cities, and would bring incalculable economic benefit to Scotland along the way. Amsterdam, Brussels and Dublin are doing just that – why not Scotland?

What a shame we never had a Scottish Secretary from Shotts.

Protectionism. When British Airways was a state owned airline, international agreements were reached to protect it from competition, but even now that it is a private company they still persist, especially across the Atlantic.

The Bermuda II negotiations between the UK and USA are still being conducted for the benefit of British Airways. British Midland was recently blocked from offering new low cost fares from Scotland to the USA.

A Dutchman flying from Amsterdam via Heathrow to the USA today will pay hundreds of pounds less than a Scot. It’s hard to believe that our Government is actually forcing the airlines to charge Scots higher prices, even though we are actually closer to North America.

The transport minister in charge of all this should know a bit about Scotland; Gus MacDonald’s last job was running Scottish Television.

And what is this specially protected British Airways doing for the Scot who wants to fly internationally? Well the “world’s favourite airline” has one solitary international route from Scotland (Edinburgh to Paris). Go anywhere else with BA, and you will first go somewhere you didn’t want to, like Birmingham. It really would be more honest if they were called “English Airways”.

Drills. Finally, I can’t resist a moan about the government-imposed safety briefings in which the stewardess shows you how to put on a life jacket. In my business career I must have been subjected to this floor show thousands of times between Edinburgh and London. Where exactly do they expect us to come down – in the Manchester Ship Canal?

It’s not an impressive list of government intervention. It seems that we Scots are condemned forever to interconnect via other hubs to get to most European and North American destinations – adding inconvenience and costing us all considerable time and money. And until our government stops protecting the airports and carriers, and starts supporting the passengers, it’s not likely to change much.

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