THE deputy first minister John Swinney offered no hope of support for calls from a Scottish Government agency to give more financial encouragement for travelling islanders to use the skies instead of the seas as investigations continue into how to overcome the unreliability of the lifeline ferry fleet.

Highlands and Islands Enterprise, which has provided £15,000 of public money to allow a group of islanders to investigate taking routes off state-controlled ferry operator CalMac has indicated that aircraft could help take the strain to support islanders fed up with lifeline service disruption, by laying on extra flights and making them cheaper.

HIE has said that addressing affordability and availability of conventional air travel to and from islands should be a "priority".

While saying there were "chronic issues" around the resilience and reliability of the ferry fleet to islands off the west coast of Scotland which is having a "profound impact" on residents and businesses, it said that there flights needed to be made cheaper.

It said one way to make air travel cheaper for those fed up with the reliability of ferries would be to include business travel within the Air Discount Scheme (ADS) which offers a discount of 50% for remote Scottish communities.

It said that apart from cost, availability and frequency was also a "common issue" for air services to and from islands.

The Liberal Democrats MSP for Orkney Islands, Liam McArthur told Mr Swinney that in 2011 SNP ministers removed island businesses from the air discount scheme with no prior consultation.

HeraldScotland: Liam McArthur

He said: "Ministers desperately tried to blame the European Union—which was still used as an SNP bogeyman back in 2011 - but they eventually admitted that it was a cost-cutting measure.

"HIE’s assessment backs the Highlands and Islands Transport Partnership’s early analysis that the ADS cut negatively impacted staff productivity, turnover and operating costs. Given that assessment, will the government now reverse the cut and allow businesses in the Highlands and Islands the chance to compete on a level playing field?"

But John Swinney would not bite.

He said: "The Government makes substantial investments in the Highlands and Islands air network. As I have set out, £77 million is being spent to support that network. Obviously, the Government will engage constructively with local communities, as I and other ministers do constantly.

"However, we have to make choices about the availability of resources and concentrate those resources in the most effective way to ensure that we support island communities.

"As I announced in the emergency budget review last week, we are putting additional financial support into island communities to support the recovery from Covid."

Scottish Conservative shadow transport minister Graham Simpson asked what Mr Swinney's response was to HIE's call for cheaper air travel for business passengers, "which could help strengthen the viability of island routes".

HeraldScotland:

Mr Swinney responded: "We recognise that reliable and affordable transport to and from our islands helps to maintain thriving communities and local economies. That is why we provide significant funding to make air travel to our remote communities, including the islands, more affordable."

He said the £77 million to support air services in the Highlands and Islands included funding to Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd to maintain its airports and funding for the air discount scheme, which provides island residents with a 50 per cent discount on fares to and from the mainland.

He said it also includes a subsidy for the air services from Glasgow to Campbeltown, Tiree and Barra.

But Mr Simpson responded: "We know that things are bad when a Scottish Government agency speaks of people moving away from the islands because the links are so poor. At least Highlands and Islands Enterprise understands the desperation of islanders—so much so, that it is giving £15,000 to some of them to look into how to run their own ferry services.

"HIE says that many island businesses rely on planes to get them on and off the islands. That is largely because the ferries are so unreliable. Therefore, cheaper air fares for businesses would bolster vital air routes. HIE also says that better links for everyone will help to stop depopulation. It points to chronic issues on the west coast ferry fleet and the need to help island councils that run their own services to replace their fleets.

"Will the Government do anything more on air fares, and will it help the councils to fund new ferries? When will the Government pull its finger out, tell us how it wants to run ferries in the future and set out a proper ferry replacement plan?"

Mr Swinney repeated that the government is "significantly funding" air services in the Highlands and Islands to the tune of £77 million.

HeraldScotland: Deputy First Minister John Swinney delivering his budget statement to the Scottish Parliament on Wednesday. Picture: Jane Barlow/PA

And he added: "It is a bit rich for Mr Simpson to argue for more money to be spent on those services, since seven weeks ago the Conservatives were asking me to reduce taxes, which would have come at the expense of public expenditure.

"On public expenditure on ferries, the Government was spending £139 million on ferry services about 10 years ago; we are now spending £315 million on those services and expanding the routes and services that people can rely on."

Islanders on the Mull and Iona Ferry Committee (MIFC) have received the HIE grant to look into a model for 'unbundling' of ferry routes that could be replicated across Scotland.

The feasibility study is looking at alternative ownership of ferries in the wake of concerns over continuing disruption to services with an ageing fleet in which four out of ten major vessels are now over 30 years old.

The HIE agency has provided the full amount to cover the cost study into whether services could be run by the communities themselves as an alternative to what MIFC calls the current monopoly controlled by Scottish Government-controlled bodies.

It comes as the state-owned ferry operator CalMac is having to handle an ageing ferry fleet with new lifeline vessels MV Glen Sannox and Hull 802 still languishing in the now state-owned Ferguson Marine shipyard, with costs of their construction more than soaring from £97m to nearly £340m and delivery over five years late.