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We remain committed to continuing our support for Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd and operating and funding the air discount scheme, which benefits remote and rural communities. Our subsidy of HIAL means that airport charges are lower than they would otherwise be, which enables the operation of commercial air services. Our support for HIAL was more than £28.2 million in 2018-19.
Earlier this year, we announced the continuation of the air discount scheme to 31 December 2020, and the extension of the geographic area of the scheme around Caithness, which aims to encourage further use of Wick airport. In this financial year, we will spend about £11.5 million on the air discount scheme.
Given the recent negative changes to the Eastern Airways timetable and the potential for further changes to services operating to and from Wick John O’Groats airport, will the Scottish Government consider the introduction of a public service obligation from Wick before further failures, to ensure that the region remains connected to the rest of mainland Scotland?
Like the member, I was disappointed that Eastern Airways decided to reduce the frequency of the service on the Aberdeen route, but I recognise that, like any other airline, it must make the best use of the assets that it has in the most efficient way. Of course, Wick airport continues to benefit from the air discount scheme and the extension of the scheme in the area in order to encourage people to make greater use of the airport.
In the summer, I had constructive dialogue, along with my officials, with the Caithness Chamber of Commerce, as did HIAL, and we will continue to work with them to see how we can best improve connectivity for the long term in the area. Any consideration of a PSO is a matter with strict regulations and rules around it, as I have previously outlined in the chamber, and any consideration of putting in place a PSO would have to be supported by multiple funding partners. I am always open to dialogue on such matters and I assure the member that we will continue to do what we can to help maintain and improve air connectivity to Wick where that is feasible.
The member may be aware that public sector pay policy applies across all parts of HIAL: that is the policy that applies to all workers within the
Highlands and Islands. There are no exceptions to that and air traffic control staff are no different from any other members of staff who work for HIAL. Those are the arrangements that are in place and will continue to be in place in dealing with these issues.
As I have stated previously regarding the claim that is being made by trade union representatives, there has been no evidence to substantiate the nature of that claim, which is significantly higher than that of any other HIAL staff. On that basis, I do not believe that it has been substantiated and, given the very significant offer that has already been made by HIAL to ATC staff, I encourage them to work actively with HIAL to get the matter resolved as quickly as possible and to recognise that they have been made a very generous offer in the present economic climate.