On April 14, 1972, a project organised by Inverness County Council was formally opened by George Younger, then Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for development at the Scottish Office. This was the Isle of Skye Airstrip at Ashaig near Broadford - pictured above - which had been constructed by the Royal Corps of Engineers between 1969 and 1971. Yet, despite the huge growth in air travel worldwide, Loganair ceased its flights from Glasgow in 1988 and the airstrip has been little used since. It appears briefly in a scene from the 1980 film Flash Gordon and remains available to the emergency services while Loch Lomond Seaplanes still uses it for some flights.
Now there’s a chance that mainstream flights may return…editor Fred Silver looks at the plans
A view across the apron at the Stornoway Airport terminal
Having lived in the Outer Hebrides for a quarter of a century, I find it incredible that the people of Skye, Raasay, and the Western Highlands have been left without access to a local airport.
Some of the key gains which the Outer Hebrides had from World War Two are the airports at Balivanich and Stornoway. It’s easy to overlook how big Stornoway’s airport is – its main runway is long enough for a full-loaded Boeing 747 Jumbo jet to land. And it’s got two runways – the shorter cross-runway, regularly used in certain weather conditions, is still 25 per cent longer than the existing Ashaig airstrip at Broadford.
And the key role Stornoway Airport plays in keeping businesses and communities on Lewis and Harris in contact with the wider world cannot be under-estimated. London-based visitors can easily fly up and back for a weekend…they generate no road traffic en route and create local business when they arrive by hiring cars and people carriers or by supporting a whole industry of taxi drivers.
And Stornoway has direct flights to Aberdeen, Benbecula , Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Inverness, leading to a whole host of options for onward travel.
By ferry and car, it’s about four hours, 30 minutes from Stornoway to Inverness, but by air, centre-to-centre, it’s around 100 minutes. This compares with around three exhausting hours to drive from Portree to Inverness airport and more than four hours on public transport.
But for longer distances, the gains are far greater. Once in 2013, I was eating a Tarte aux Pommes in departures at Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport at 11.30am…and was standing on my doorstep in Stornoway at 3.15pm – that’s a total travel time of four hours and 45 minutes! According to Google, the fastest car journey from Portree to Glasgow Airport is four hours 35 minutes for 207 miles – and it is far slower in summer. (And six hours and 30 minutes by public transport). Google estimates the fastest connection by air from Stornoway to Paris CDG is four hours and 25 minutes; to New York it is nine hours 30 minutes; and to London is two hours 40 minutes.
The costs of building a new airport are miniscule compared both to the likely gains to the local economy and to local people and to infrastructure costs elsewhere, particularly as there is no chance at all of any significant improvements in the roads to Skye through the Highlands. Even the most expensive airport option, which would allow 40-seater planes to land, comes in at a shade under £50 million. Sounds a lot, but around £70 million has just been invested in the Stornoway to Ullapool ferry route, and the Isles of Harris and North Uist are having more than £30 million spent on a new ferry and improved port facilities. Yet since the Skye Bridge was completed in 1995, there has been no significant infrastructure gain for the Isle of Skye. (And ferries have to be replaced every 20 to 30 years whereas building the airport is a one-off investment.)
To put it in perspective, I calculate the £50m spend involved in the costliest Skye airport option would have built just 700 metres of tramway in Edinburgh; and merely taken 14 per cent of the total Scottish Government under-spend in 2014-15. It amounts to 0.0000015 per cent of the total Scottish Government budget. And, anyway, the present Highland Council plan is to go for the shorter runway option which costs half that much.
If approved, Highland Council has said that a new airport could be built on Skye in about two years. Councillors have approved the executive summary of a final draft business case for the flights involved. Feedback on the summary is now being sought from Transport Scotland.
Highland Council, public transport body Hitrans and Highlands and Islands Enterprise have long been investigating the potential for more flights for Skye. The organisations have calculated that over 30 years the flights could generate in the region of £36m to £46m locally, depending on whether nine-seat or 19-seat aircraft were used.
Personally, I would guess these as underestimates. In the 1990s, there was a study of Caledonian MacBrayne ferry improvements to try to understand why new services so frequently ran short of space very quickly. It identified the “new ferry effect” – the extent to which a new service generates completely new and unthought-of business. For instance, the Loch Bhrusda ferry came on the new Sound of Harris crossing in 1996; four years later, it was clearly already too small and was hurriedly replaced in 2003 by the Loch Portain which can carry twice as many cars and now runs seven days a week.
At Ashaig, the runway length limits aircraft options with the 19-seat Twin Otter being the largest option available for the airport being proposed. This means that forecast unconstrained demand of around 25,000 passengers a year cannot be met as it exceeds aircraft capacity (although there is scope to meet this through greater service frequency). The estimated annual load for the start-up route is 16,000 passengers.
Yet the airport on the Isle of Barra, population 1100, is used by almost 11,000 people a year…while Benbecula’s airport is used by more than 31,000 a year. While, of course, they are further out from the centre, they have nothing like the tourist magnet effect of the Isle of Skye while Skye’s population is around 10,000, compared to less than 5,000 in the Uists. And imagine the year-round benefits to the accommodation industry of being to attract impulse visitors throughout the winter.
Runway lengthening at Ashaig to enable Saab 340 services was assessed but the business case does not achieve a positive status, according to researchers. The runway at Ashaig has a Site of Special Scientific Interest, a graveyard plus a Natura 2000 designated site, hemming it in. There are also costs for sea protection works. This would mean a bill of more than £20m extra to lengthen it before any market demand had been proven. And it was long ago agreed that no other site on Skye is suitable in terms of safety and location.
An earlier attempt of get the airport back on the political agenda in 2013 suffered at launch from reports of cost options ranging from £3m to c. £20m and this served to make the project appear lacking in focus or deliverability. There were all sorts of options that included some runway lengthening that might have allowed a wider range of aircraft options but still could not accommodate the Saab 340. This is the workhorse of Loganair’s Highland network but would need the option of a 1300 metre long runway, almost double the present length, and costing up to £50 million.
Strangely, the Outer Hebrides first had air services to the Central Belt in the 1930s. A Scottish Airways timetable for August 1939 shows these services – (Monday-Wednesday-Friday) Glasgow (Renfrew) 0940; Tiree 1055; South Uist (Askernish) by special arrangement; Benbecula 1140; North Uist 1155; Harris (Northton by request); North Uist 1245; Benbecula 1300; South Uist (optional); Barra 1350; Glasgow 1530. (Tuesday-Thursday-Saturday) Glasgow 0940; Tiree 1055; Barra 1140; Benbecula 1230; South Uist (as above); North Uist 1245; Harris (as above); North Uist 1335; South Uist (as above); Tiree 1420; Glasgow 1535. The fares Glasgow to Uist were single £4, return £7. (£7 equals around £420 in present £’s!)
Distance lends enchantment they say, but in the modern world, it’s even better to travel quickly so that when you arrive, you can better enjoy the enchantment!