British Airways' reputation in Scotland took another battering this week with news that it is to shut its Glasgow cabin crew operation with the loss of 130 jobs.
Is this yet another sign that the end could be near for the boom days of direct flights from Scotland? Certainly it’s not just a one off, it would appear to be part of a growing momentum that’s seeing the industry, if not deserting, then certainly retreating from north of the border. BA also announced in the summer that it was cutting its early morning London flights; German Wings, Czech Airlines and Ryanair are just some of the others who have stopped flying or are cutting back their schedules not forgetting the ill fated Zoom.
So has the direct flights ‘bubble’ burst.? The growth in flights from Scotland over the past decade has been phenomenal. Just looking back as recently as the early 1990s the number of destinations that could be arrived at without changing planes could be counted on the fingers of both hands, dominated by charter destinations in the Mediterranean. Now at the latest count, even with the recent abandoning of some routes, there are still over 70 direct destinations possible from Scotland.
But does anyone really want to fly to a field 50 kms from Ostend? The growth in ever more remote and unlikely locations has been partly driven by the government’s Route Development Fund. Airlines keen to snap up subsidies searched evey corner of Europe for availble airstrips and marketed it as the place to be seen.
But with government cash no more it seem the good days have come to an end. Without tempting subsidies airlines are reluctant to embark on risky expansions from Scottish airports. But the problem lies deeper than that. A combination fuel prices, increased security, more environmental awareness and the novelty value of spending a weekend in that suburb somewhere near Ostend waning, have all combined to see passenger levels bottom out.
There is mounting school of thought within the airline industry that the growth of shorthaul flights over the last decade may be at an end and that the whole aviation business model may be changing. Some in the industry see the future of flying in Europe as a series of super airport hubs for long distance flights and fast train links making up the journey times to smaller European cities.
With passenger numbers at there highest since the 1940’s it would seem the train could be taking the strain away from our over crowded, security gridlocked airports. With news at last week’s Tory conference that they will be backing a high speed rail links, all be it to Leeds initially, it is here that government transport thinking should now be focused.
It needs to be making the case to both UK government and opposition parties that Leeds shouldn’t be the end of the line for any future TGV style upgrade.
The UK would be best served with a high speed backbone running all the way from the Channel to Aberdeen and Inverness. As a nation perched on the edge of Europe it is fundamental to Scotland’s economic prosperity that it is fully connected and integrated into any future high speed European rail network.
To continue the debates about airport expansion is becoming increasingly irrelevant in what is an industry on the verge of a major contraction. It’s time transport thinking got back on the rails.