Welsh air route in difficulties, call for funding cut
Tuesday, January 26, 2010
Highland Airways, which runs flights between Anglesey in north Wales and Cardiff in south Wales, has said today that it is business as usual, despite suspending online booking yesterday. Meanwhile, Liberal Democrats have called on the Welsh Assembly Government to withdraw the £800,000 annual public subsidy for the route (about US$1.3 million) and use the money on "green public transport" instead.
Although flights were continuing and passengers were told to "check in as normal", the company stopped taking bookings for future flights yesterday, blaming "technical difficulties". However, it also said that trading conditions were "difficult". The company's commercial director, Basil O'Fee, explained that the company's problems had been "exacerbated by the severe winter and resultant reduced flying and reduced income." He added that the board was in talks with potential new investors, and hoped for a outcome of these discussions to be known "within days rather than weeks".
"It is now time to end this costly debacle before even more public money is poured into a service that is both economically and environmentally unsustainable," according to Kirsty Williams, leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats. She wants the money spent on improving rail transport in Wales.
However, Ieuan Wyn Jones, the leader of the Welsh nationalist party Plaid Cymru and the Assembly member for Anglesey, said that the service was an "essential link". He hoped that the company would be able to keep going, or in a "worse case scenario", that the route would be run by administrators while the Assembly Government looked at other options.
The company has carried 37,000 people on its twice-daily service since it started operating. According to Jones, this showed that that the service "has been a huge success with passenger numbers far exceeding expectations".
Bidding for the next contract with the Assembly Government to provide the route closed last week, with Highland Airways thought to be the only entrant. The lack of other bids was "particularly worrying", commented Jenny Randerson, Welsh Liberal Democrats transport spokesperson. "This does suggest that despite huge public subsidy, this service is still not seen as a viable, profitable, and green solution to this key transport need", she said.
Highland Airways is based in Inverness, Scotland, where it operates passenger and freight services for island communities. The news that the company was in difficulty was said to come as a surprise to business and transport leaders in Scotland, where it is regarded as a "Highland success story".