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  • Ian Ritchie : Business AM

Scotland still prevented from reaching for the sky

Given the importance of air travel, regulators should be looking after our needs better

ANYONE FLYING TO AND FROM London via Gatwick these days will have noticed a difference on the British Airways flights. They are running half empty.

In the light of the current downturn in international travel, British Airways has been protecting its flagship position at Heathrow by stripping services away from its Gatwick base. As a result, Gatwick is no longer as common a flight connection destination, and international-bound BA customers from Scotland are increasingly being sent via Heathrow instead.

Many of the relinquished BA slots are being taken up by easyJet, which start new services from Edinburgh to Gatwick next month. EasyJet is already the second largest scheduled airline at Gatwick and is aiming to grow it further as an alternative hub to Luton. Cost-conscious customers should be pleased, as the fares on EasyJet are quite a bit lower than British Airways, but a side effect could well be the withdrawal of British Airways’ business-oriented service entirely from the Scotland-Gatwick route.

Many easyJet regulars will be relatively happy to give Luton a body-swerve; a place which still feels like a “bucket and spade” airport. Its owners haven’t done much to pamper the easyJet passenger - a vast amount of money has been spent on a huge state-of-the-art check-in terminal building, but the area where you actually spend all your time waiting (…and waiting) for your easyJet plane to show up, is the same old unrefurbished dingy shed.

EasyJet building a hub at Gatwick is just the latest of an emerging trend. It already has its Liverpool hub, and while Ryanair bases its UK operations at Stanstead, Go now has an alternative hub in Bristol to add to its Stanstead base. And bmi british midland is planning a new low cost network based on East Midlands airport.

Soon, all the major conurbations in England will have their own low-cost airline hub. Here in Scotland, however, we will remain firmly “out in the spokes”; destined always to have to go to where we really want to go… via somewhere else in England that we didn’t.

And although, on the face of it, the competitive fares offered by these airlines look attractive, the other aspects of their operations do not, particularly if you are traveling onwards.

They are all careful to point out that they run a ‘point-to-point’ service and that they do not offer interlining (connecting services) between flights. If your first flight is delayed and you miss your second one, it might be their fault, but it is decidedly your problem. They will not transfer your luggage, even between their own flights, so you must leave plenty of time to collect it from the baggage hall before you can check-in again for your second leg. And, of course, in these nervous times, you have to leave lots and lots of extra time to check-in, once again, and lug your luggage back, once again, through the security checks.

All in all, traveling to and from Europe via low cost airlines may be cheap, but it is certainly not cheerful, or efficient.

All this travel hassle will surely have a negative impact on Scotland ’s attractiveness as a base for doing business. For the more low-cost airline networks that become established, with only their remote spokes extending up here to Scotland, the more they will suck away the indigenous Scottish demand for European travel. It then becomes more and more difficult for any airline to make a business case to set up any new direct routes out of Scotland .

Compared to other major cities in small European countries, such as Copenhagen and Dublin, Edinburgh and Glasgow have a tiny number of direct international flights. And the way things are going, this is only going to get worse and worse.

What’s to be done? Well, scheduled air transport is heavily regulated and although this is a UK responsibility, here in Scotland we have special requirements which might not be noticed by the UK-wide regulator.

Given the importance of air travel in the development of modern businesses, and given that Scotland is geographically remote from its major markets, is it not reasonable to ask our regulators to look after our needs better?

At a minimum, airlines which offer a scheduled hub and spoke service, based in the UK, should be required to offer decent flight connection facilities to their passengers.

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