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A House of Commons committee heard this week (Monday 10 January) that air travellers have lost confidence in flying, following repeated changes in regulations put in place in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Highlands and Islands Airports Limited (HIAL) were represented by managing director Inglis Lyon during the evidence session held by the cross-party Scottish Affairs Committee, as part of their continuing investigation into the current situation for Scotland’s airports.

He was at the committee to explain the position for airports including Stornoway, Benbecula, Barra and Inverness, while other representatives answered questions on the experience of Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen airports.

In his evidence Mr Lyon told MPs: “Our role during the pandemic has largely been about maintaining lifeline services, and they really are lifeline services. …It is patient transfers to hospitals. It is medical supplies going back and forth.

“When the initial lockdown happened, we put in place with the Scottish Government and with our largest customer, Loganair, a skeleton service … running west from Glasgow into Stornoway and Benbecula and also into Barra, and then between the west and also the capital of the highlands, Inverness.

“The primary role of these was to ensure that these remote communities remained connected. It was to ensure the movement of key personnel and to keep these lifeline services going.

“The current position where we are is that we are currently running, year to date, approximately 50% down on pre-pandemic levels and, at the end of the first year of the pandemic, we finished up about 80% down.

“What we are hearing thus far is that, with every announcement of further restrictions, confidence just falls off a cliff, and so do the passengers in terms of using the services.”

Mr Lyon told the committee that government support schemes including furlough for staff and rates relief meant that HIAL ‘did very well’ in terms of financial support. No jobs were lost at the airports themselves – by contrast to some of the larger airports – but a number of airport-based concessions stopped trading.

As things stand now, he said: “The biggest danger we have is that we leave things to chance. We now have to start planning for that recovery, planning to make UK plc one of the places where people want to go to and fly from.

“We are still very much in firefighting mode, which is entirely understandable, but we almost need to be spending as much time on looking at the recovery period as we are doing on the firefighting part of it.

“The biggest challenge that we have just now is not so much with the local domestic inter-island traffic, but about retaining the link between the capital of the highlands and London Heathrow.

“That is an essential piece of business for the highlands to retain, especially as we were successful in attracting it—now we have got to retain it.

“These things hang by a thread when the industry is under the pressure that it is currently under, in terms of aircraft availability, profitability and eye-watering losses over the last two years. Marginal routes like these come under a great deal of pressure.”

During the meeting, MPS also heard from Gordon Dewar, chief executive at Edinburgh airport and from Brian McClean, director of communications and sustainability at AGS Airports Limited, which manages Glasgow and Aberdeen airports.

The inquiry was set up in July 2021, at which time Scottish Affairs Committee chairman, Pete Wishart, said: “Airports in Scotland are a lifeline for many rural communities, and for people travelling to different parts of the UK and further afield.

“In a turbulent 18 months for airports with the covid-19 pandemic, our committee is keen to explore what impact reduced numbers of flights have had on communities, and how this has impacted the local job market.”