Anger has erupted over the decision to suspend flights to Inverness, while Scottish Government-owned Highlands and Islands Airports Limited (HIAL) is embroiled in a dispute with union members over pay, initiating strikes and work-to-rule at airports.
As a result, services from Inverness to Stornoway and Benbecula and from Inverness to Kirkwall and Sumburgh were discontinued.
The company operates most of the airports in northern Scotland including Inverness, Kirkwall, Sumburgh, Stornoway and Benbecula.
Unions representing workers at airports operated by HIAL are currently conducting intermittent strike action and other work-to-rule actions just before a strike.
READ MORE: Transport Secretary gives no assurance over fiasco ferries delivery
Loganair operates most of Scotland’s island services with daily flights to Inverness from HIAL airports on the islands.
However, Loganair decided to suspend regular flights to the islands from March 17, which will last six weeks until the end of April.
Ms Gilruth, who says there was no warning to ministers about Loganair’s actions, now says there are hopes of a solution to the pay dispute being examined by ministers.
Alasdair Allan, the SNP MP for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (the western islands), said islanders were “appalled” by Loganair’s “disproportionate and draconian” move.
“The impact on patients, including cancer patients alone, is almost unthinkable. Seriously ill people rely on the service to be treated on the mainland and it’s unclear how surgeries, appointments and scans are otherwise being conducted.
“Loganair is a company that has received significant public funding, directly and indirectly, and has put NHS Western Isles in a terrible position.”
Ms Gilruth said: “It is disappointing that Loganair has suspended these routes, although I hope to have a solution before March 17th. I met with HIAL’s Chairman and CEO on Saturday morning to stress the need for a timely resolution of the wage dispute.. And I asked for a new business case to be presented to ministers as a matter of urgency.
READ MORE: Fears new ferries may never set sail as Ferguson Marine’s budget tightens
“Following further discussions with unions yesterday morning, HIAL has developed further proposals which, subject to HIAL’s board agreement, will shortly be examined by ministers. Transport Scotland officials have also discussed the situation with Loganair, which operates these routes on a commercial basis.”
Neil Bibby, Scottish Labour’s transport spokesman, told the Minister: “The inescapable and scandalous fact is that the Scottish Government would still be sitting on their hands and ignoring the damage to the islands had it not been for the dramatic escalation caused by Loganair was threatened. That’s not how things should work.
“Cancer patients should not have to be scared to get a government response. Islands should not be out of sight and out of mind until there is a risk of political embarrassment. Why has the transport minister suddenly discovered a role? , as she repeatedly refused to engage over the past five months, while HIAL said their hands were tied by the Scottish Government’s wage policy.”
Ms Gilruth in the Scottish Parliament said her political opponent had “slightly mischaracterized the situation”.
“It is not true to say that I was not involved during this process. And I share Mr Bibby’s concerns and that is precisely why, when I was informed of this decision on Friday, I sought the first available opportunity to speak directly to HIAL on Saturday morning.
READ MORE: Ferguson Marine: Ferry company sanctioned twice over financial failures
“An urgent resolution of this dispute is clearly needed now. For example, I’m particularly concerned about any impact on doctor’s appointments. This is a matter I have asked Transport Scotland to raise directly with Loganair.
“This is a decision for Loganair. Loganair believes that action taken just before a strike in the form of a regulation will lead to short-term cancellations. Loganair has therefore made the commercial decision in this regard based on the costs generated by cancellations. It is not a matter which Government Ministers may interfere with as the Scottish Government has no direct role in providing them.
Customers who booked Loganair flights during the period of suspension will be contacted and given the option to rebook on alternative routes or receive a full refund.
Jonathan Hinkles, Loganair chief executive, has defended the move.
He said: “Loganair’s experience from the last three disputes over four years at Highlands and Islands airports is that while working to rule it is incredibly difficult to continue to provide service.”
He said vital services cannot maintain a high standard while working to the rule. “That then puts us in a position where we are suddenly told in no time at all that the airport will be closed for the next hour because the controllers need a mandatory rest break or certain aircraft cannot land there because the fire brigade is sufficiently manned for this type of aircraft is.
“Having disruptions that day and having to cancel flights that day, which when you’re totally dependent on getting a hospital appointment in Raigmore, is the last thing we want, it’s the last thing our customers want.
“By setting that up in advance, we’ve been telling people, ‘Look, this service won’t be there for that period of time’ until this industrial issue is resolved.”
A Loganair spokesman said: “We fully understand that this unprecedented move will not be welcome news for communities that depend on the flight services offered by Loganair.
“We have unfortunately concluded that it is simply not realistic to continue our efforts to provide service between HIAL airports when the action just prior to a strike is intended to disrupt and counter those efforts at every turn.
https://www.heraldscotland.com/news/homenews/23369907.hopes-resolution-six-week-loganair-island-flight-suspension/?ref=rss Hopes for a solution over Loganair Island’s six-week flight suspension