Maintaining capacity on services from Highland and Islands airports with worldwide connections is essential for that area’s economic development. The effect of the United Kingdom Government’s air passenger duty has been amply demonstrated by Flybe’s recent announcement of the sale of its slots at Gatwick. The chairman of Flybe, Jim French, said:
“with the absence of a regional aviation strategy and the government’s penalistic and ludicrous policy of charging Air Passenger Duty (APD) on both legs of a domestic flight, I’m afraid it’s inevitable that high frequency services from the UK’s regions will ultimately be squeezed out”.
That is a significant warning statement, and it underlines the absolute necessity for air passenger duty to be devolved to the Scottish Parliament.
Does the First Minister recall that, in 2008, air services from Inverness to Heathrow were ended? In light of that, is it not important to say that
“Protecting the links from Inverness to Gatwick is now even more essential”?
Of course, those are not my words but those of the local MP, Danny Alexander, in 2008. Is it not rank hypocrisy that the local MP had one opinion in 2008 but has done nothing in government to support air services from Inverness?
Well, we should remember the context: Danny Alexander is a Liberal Democrat, so adopting two positions at the same time might itself be party policy. It is a rather invidious position to be in to be the Chief Secretary of the Treasury and the local member for Inverness and to be responsible for the very air passenger duty that is threatening services from Inverness while complaining about it and posing as their defender. Perhaps if we agree on devolving air passenger duty to this Parliament as a policy that benefits the Scottish economy, Danny Alexander will be relieved of the difficulty of having to be the Treasury’s man in Inverness while pretending to be Inverness’s man in the Treasury.
Will the First Minister hold talks with the UK Government, Flybe and easyJet, which now has the flights from Inverness airport? Will he look at having a public service obligation on routes to Gatwick airport? Will he also speak to the airlines about connectivity from the islands through to Gatwick, which used to be booked through one operator and will now require to be booked through two?
Talks are going on between the Minister for Transport and Veterans and the airport carriers at present. The member should direct her attention to what Flybe has said and the extent of studies across Scottish airports and carriers, which are looking at the differential impact that air passenger duty is having on Scottish flights. That is the key to and source of the difficulty. I hope that the member will join the Government in calling for APD to be devolved to this Parliament so that we can produce an airport and passenger policy that benefits the Scottish economy as opposed to threatening vital services.