The island’s air service to Oban is to stop on 16 May.
Argyll and Bute Council, having cut the subsidy it proposes to pay to an operator, has failed to find an airline willing to take the route on at the lower price. Flights to Coll, Colonsay and Islay will also stop. Teachers trying to maintain the link between Tiree and Oban High Schools, patients accessing the Oban hospital, animals on Coll being treated by Coll and Tiree Vets, Tiree companies running their business on other islands and the mainland, and politicians trying to keep in touch with their constituents on Tiree are likely to feel the pinch.
The Argyll Air Service was set up in 2008. Argyll and Bute spent over £8 million on Connel airport to prepare for the new service, as well as building new runways on Coll and Colonsay. They have invested hugely in this enterprise. In addition, the Council has offered a subsidy to any airline willing to run the service, a subsidy that used to be £720,000 a year, which works out at £220 per passenger carried. Other subsidised routes, like those to the Western Isles, work out at around £125 per passenger. One problem is that our service is under-used, with a seat take-up of only 40%. Most passengers are patients going to hospital and health and council workers making day trips.
Argyll and Bute Council are feeling the pinch. They are the second largest local authority in Scotland by area after Highland, and have a hugely spread-out population to serve, including 23 inhabited islands. This must be the main reason that capital spending by Argyll and Bute Council on their residents is the lowest in Scotland. You don’t need me to tell you that! As part of their cuts this year, they have reduced the air service subsidy to just over £512,000 a year – still a lot of money, but not enough to attract an operator within the budget allowed. Fuel prices have also gone up recently, and there is no guarantee that they won’t rise again soon. After a heap of lobbying from Tiree, Coll and Colonsay Community Councils and our MSP Mike Russell, the Council’s Policy and Resources Committee did agree to try again – but with no increase in subsidy.
We have made the point that this second tender must change – otherwise the risk is that we simply get the same result. But EU competition rules means this is a slow business, and even if there is a better response the second time we are looking at the late summer at the earliest before flights could re-start. And there is a significant risk that the Argyll Air Service will be wound up completely – leaving Tiree worse off than islands in the Western Isles, Orkney or Shetland. Tiree Community Council has written three times to the Council and our MSP. We have now lobbied John Swinney, Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills, as the new link between Oban and Tiree High Schools must be threatened if the planes are grounded. This is the final paragraph of our most recent letter:
‘Tiree Community Council and the Tiree Transport Forum place the utmost importance on the continuation of the Argyll Air Service. The island is well served with an air link to Glasgow, but Argyll and Bute councillors must not forget that Tiree is part of Argyll and Bute Council, and that our regional centres are Oban and Lochgilphead. Other island groups in Scotland have similar or better air services. We do appreciate the problems in the service as it stands (see our previous correspondence) and we accept that there may be timetable and fare changes in a new successful tender. What we cannot accept is the loss of this service.’
The full text of TCC’s submission is on the website.