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Bid to save Scotland’s airline links

BUSINESS leaders have called for air links between Scotland and Heathrow to be protected amid fears more domestic routes could be axed to make way for lucrative long-haul services at the London hub.

Concern over the future of Scotland’s aviation sector has prompted the Scottish Council for Development and Industry (SCDI) to demand landing slots at Heathrow are ring-fenced for domestic flights.

Alex Neil, Cabinet Secretary for Infrastructure, has also raised the matter in talks with his Westminster counterparts.

Their intervention was made ahead of last week’s provisional deal to sell BMI to British Airways’ parent group, IAG -- a move that would give the carrier an effective monopoly on Scotland’s air links to Heathrow.

The SCDI, a trade lobbying organisation representing businesses and civic society groups, said an earlier decision by BMI to axe its Heathrow-Glasgow route in March underlined the fragility of domestic air routes to Scotland and their dependence on Heathrow.

In a submission made as part of a consultation on the UK Government’s aviation strategy, Gareth Williams, the SCDI’s head of policy, called on the Coalition to reconsider its decision to block a third runway at Heathrow, warning that Scotland’s businesses and tourism sector would be seriously damaged by constraining its access to reliable air services.

He also called for guaranteed slots at Heathrow for “regional economic centres” more than 3.5 hours’ road or rail travel from London -- a move that would cover Scotland’s central belt.

Train travel to London from both Glasgow and Edinburgh is currently around 4.5 hours.

Mr Williams wrote: “We believe the UK Government was fundamentally mistaken in its decisions on new capacity, above all at Heathrow.”

His stance was backed yesterday by Laurie Price, director of aviation strategy at Mott MacDonald, who said constraint on airports in the south-east of England would harm Scotland. He said: “Scottish domestic services will be hung out to dry. Anything domestic will be increasingly vulnerable with the strategy of no extra capacity at Heathrow.”

The SCDI said its position was supported by a survey of businesses in the west of Scotland that emphasised the importance of direct flights to Heathrow, both for travelling to the UK capital and onwards to connecting international flights.

A poll of Glasgow businesses found the majority of inward investors cited the importance of connectivity through Heathrow. In addition, two-thirds of respondents in Glasgow said the loss of the BMI route had a direct impact on their businesses.

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said both Mr Neil and Transport Secretary Keith Brown had raised the issue of Heathrow with the Coalition and the airport’s owner, BAA.

She said: “Scottish ministers recognise the importance of Heathrow slots to Scotland. The importance of maintaining these has previously been raised by Alex Neil and by Transport Minister Keith Brown in writing and in person with the Westminster Government and BAA.”

In 2010, Lord Adonis, then Labour Transport Secretary, warned Scottish flights would be axed unless a third runway was built at Heathrow.

However, political support for the move has withered south of the Border, with Labour last week reversing its policy position by backing the Tories and LibDems in opposing a third runway.

A spokesman for the Department for Transport said: “We plan to publish a draft aviation policy for consultation in the spring. As part of our work on this, we are seeking views on a wide range of key issues that need to be addressed.”

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