Aviation Industry — [Sir Edward Leigh in the Chair]

Part of Worker Exploitation: Leicester Textile Industry – in Westminster Hall at 2:47 pm on 18th November 2020.

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Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Northern Ireland), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Cabinet Office) 2:47 pm, 18th November 2020

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I congratulate Chris Grayling on securing this timely debate.

I completely agree with everything the right hon. Gentleman said about testing and the opportunity for testing at scale at our airports. He focused on long-haul routes, but on the routes that serve my constituency in the northern isles, it could be even more transformative. If we as an island community with few points of entry, and much lower rates of infection at the moment, could allow people in and out with confidence, it would be of enormous assistance. I very much hope that his words and mine will be heard in the parts of Government here and in Edinburgh where they need to be heard.

It is not rocket science; it is pretty straightforward. In an island community, if we get transport right, just about everything else—economic development, public services and the rest of it—falls into place. Aviation is critical, both within the islands to shift doctors, vets and teachers around the smaller island groups, and between the islands and mainland communities. Those are my principal areas of concern, but we need the same level of connectivity and interlining that other communities have. It is about us getting not just to Aberdeen, Edinburgh or Glasgow, but onwards to Heathrow or wherever else we may wish to go. For our businesses and communities, that connectivity is absolutely critical.

The situation facing Loganair, the operator of the lifeline services throughout the highlands and islands, is pretty serious at the moment. I should say parenthetically that I bow to nobody in my appreciation and admiration of the staff and management of Loganair, which just before the pandemic took on some of the Flybe routes, so it may soon be more familiar to other Members in this Chamber. I appreciate their professionalism and dedication and the approach they take to the business. They understand that they are there not just for an economic purpose, but for a social and community purpose. They are an exemplar for others, and a flying example of what corporate social responsibility means.

Loganair tells me that it faces a pretty bleak future. It has done well to provide a skeleton service throughout the lockdown, but as it looks towards bookings in quarter 1 of 2021, it sees very little to inspire confidence. It has the same fixed costs as all other airlines, including airport charges, standing charges and the cost of plane purchase and rental. Like other businesses it has the opportunity to put staff into furlough, but that is just part of the story.

In the Northern Isles, we are about to enter the third of three winters for our visitor economy. When we get to the end of the furlough period, at the end of March, we will be looking to open up and get our visitor economy going, because that is absolutely crucial to our running again. The availability of good, frequent, reliable air services in that time will be crucial.

On reliability, in the few seconds that remain to me, I place on the record yet again my exasperation at the fact that the Scottish Government, through Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd, continue to insist on the removal of air traffic control officers from airports throughout the highlands and islands, to centralise them all in Inverness. The service is not just good but reliable, so that should be put on the back burner for the foreseeable future.