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The Highland Line: why plans for a new air service are really taking off in Inverness

Commercial and civic leaders in and around the Highland capital were greatly buoyed this week with the news of a new air service.

Flybe had signed a five-year agreement with London City Airport which will see the introduction of a new service from Inverness to the heart of London.

The company, which likes to bill itself as Europe's largest regional airline, announced that from Monday October 27, it would be offering a twice daily service between the two cities, which includes business friendly flights arriving in the heart of London before 9.15am.

Of course this is the same Flybe who a year ago made another announcement - it was selling its slots at Gatwick airport to EasyJet for £20m.

This was seen as thoroughly bad news for the Highlands. Three of the weekday landing/take-off slots involved in the sale were for Flybe's Inverness to Gatwick service, two a day at the weekends.

In fact EasyJet has maintained the Gatwick as well as its Luton link, but little thanks it got from Flybe. Indeed its promotion material this week went out of its way to take a swipe at these services:

"Flybe expects the new route will appeal particularly to those travelling for business to and from the City of London and Canary Wharf whose travel plans are time-critical and who will appreciate the reduced transfer times compared to flying to/from either West Sussex (Gatwick) or Bedfordshire (Luton). London City airport is conveniently located in the heart of the financial capital with connections offered every ten minutes by Docklands Light Railway, meaning that passengers can be in Canary Wharf in 12 minutes - and, via the London Underground, in Westminster in just 24!"

Such comments were actually cleverly made. Linking Inverness with the financial and governmental centres of the UK went down very well with the north's movers and shakers. Air links matter up here. They are important to the area's sense of itself.

It was a huge blow to the region's self confidence in 1997 when British Airways pulled out of its three-times-a-day service to Heathrow, leaving British Regional Airlines to operate a service to Gatwick with smaller planes. This despite a well considered campaign fought by the public and private sector to retain the matchless connectivity Heathrow affords - in other words the connections for onward flights to important destinations.

The withdrawal of the Heathrow link offended against the narrative that the Highlands, once seen as a social and economic basket place, was on an exciting path to recovery which offered immense commercial opportunities.

The Heathrow link was re-instated in 2004, with BMI offering daily flights, however the service was discontinued in March 2008, the airline citing rising costs at Heathrow as the reason. To lose it twice was a sore blow, giving currency to the idea that the Highlands didn't really merit access to the global elite of airports.

So the idea last year that it might lose Gatwick as well was profoundly worrying. There was particular demand to keep those flights leaving Inverness at 7am with the return flight not departing London until 7.20pm, which allowed business users a full day in London without the need for an overnight stay.

EasyJet did already fly on the route but its first flight south during the week was not until 1.45pm. However they stepped up to the plate and included in its Gatwick schedule an early morning/evening return service, as well as its service to Luton.

Now there is going to be real competition for that early morning/evening business as Saad Hammad, Flybe's Chief Executive Officer, made clear: "We have taken into consideration how appealing London City is for business travellers looking to be in central London in time for morning meetings, as well as getting home in time to put the kids to bed."

London City has other advantages with connections to 45 destinations across Europe and the US.

Oh yes and it is less than three miles from Upton Park, which is very good news for the Black Isle branch of the West Ham Supporters club, or Bobby as he is better known.

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