A Scottish Government agency has proposed that more travelling islanders be moved from the seas to the skies 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 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.

It has also suggested improving access to and from islands in the longer term by providing more bridges or tunnels between - which could be between island communities and from the mainland.

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.

But in a new analysis, it has emerged that HIE has said that addressing affordability and availability of conventional air travel to and from islands should be a "priority".

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.

HeraldScotland:

HIE has said the "chronic issues" around the resilience and reliability of the ferry fleet to islands off the west coast of Scotland is having a "profound impact" on residents and businesses.

It warned that there is a "lack of confidence" in ferries meeting the needs of industry, saying disruption has led to the cancellation of freight orders to and from the results in low food stocks.

It said there was an "urgent requirement" for further second-hand vessels "as soon as possible" to ensure that there is a reasonable level of spare capacity to manage and effectively mitigate any further disruption caused by technical problems on ageing vessels.

And it said that while the £580m of investment into ferry services was welcome, beyond 2026 to 2032, there was a need for "significant levels" of investment for fleet renewal.

In a circular for MSPs looking into the reliability and sustainability of the ferry fleet, HIE, when asked whether current tendering arrangements could be improved through service unbundling said it could not comment.

It backed moves for an official commitment across Scotland that communities should be able to access or be accessed from the Central Belt within two to three hours by rail or air and with scheduling and frequency of services that allow a day’s business to be undertaken.

"Such a commitment would open up economic and social opportunities for communities that currently have poor connectivity to Scotland’s main cities, helping ensure that all parts of Scotland are able to contribute to economic growth in Scotland," the enterprise agency said.

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.

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

HeraldScotland: Glen Sannox

The Scottish Government agency said: "Where links are available, air travel can provide a significantly faster and more efficient option for business travel than via ferry and road.

"However, the cost of air travel is a barrier to its use for many.

"The potential benefits [of cheaper air travel for business] would include supporting businesses based in remote areas to access markets and customers, helping aid wider economic recovery.

"Moreover, an uptick in business travel should help to strengthen the viability of island routes, many of which are continuing to see fragile demand."

HIE also supported moves to replace ferry crossings with bridges or tunnels "where financially viable and supported by communities".

In January, ministers revealed plans to create bridges and tunnels between island communities including from Scotland's mainland and "to improve communities access to goods and services".

The fixed links plan emerged 26 years after the opening of the Skye bridge was mired in controversy.

HIE said that there had already been "sustained benefits" to island and rural communities from historic investments in fixed links, including the Skye crossing.

HIE added: There has been sustained benefits to island and rural communities from historic investments in fixed links. To take some examples, the development of bridges at Ballachulish, Kylesku, Cromarty, Kessock, Dornoch and Skye have led to long-term positive impacts for communities. Likewise, the construction of causeways and bridges in the Outer Hebrides (Vatersay, Eriskay, Berneray and Scalpay) has been transformational."

When considering whether Scottish Government subsidies could be better deployed to meet the needs of current and future ferry users, HIE said: "In our view, improvements in the affordability and availability of air links could help to complement ferry services and opportunities to enhance connectivity to islands through new fixed links should be an area of focus."

Martin Johnson, director of strategy and regional economy with HIE is expected to give his take on the ferry crisis to MSPs on Tuesday.

The Scottish Government has already spent £156,000 with consultants Ernst and Young on the Project Neptune review of the ferry network, that looked into privatising routes - that raised concerns that the most lucrative would be sold to private firms. This led to concerns over the future for state-controlled ferry operator CalMac.

But the idea has been quashed by ministers.

Ministers and the First Minister have repeatedly stated there are no plans to unbundle ferry routes.

But HIE has said the MIFC-commissioned study on unbundling will help inform the "wider discussion across island communities on this important issue".

The committee have used the money to prepare a tender for an independent consultant to examine the different forms a community-owned ferry company could take, and to assess the feasibility.

They believe the study could provide lessons for a wider unbundling of services for other island communities.

They are then to present the findings to island communities for their views on whether they can take control of services for Mull and Iona with operating profits being invested back into the islands themselves "rather than being used to feather-bed the salaries and pensions of complacent central-belt quangos".

There has been concern that the services are "cocooned" inside four levels of Scottish Government control with the Transport Scotland agency as funders, the procuring and vessel owning company, Caledonian Maritime Assets Ltd (CMAL), the ferry operators Calmac and the now nationalised shipbuilders Ferguson Marine (Port Glasgow).

The Herald revealed earlier this year that global consultants Ernst and Young had been tasked by ministers to look into the "unbundling of routes into smaller packages" as part of options for "decentralisation" in its Project Neptune report.

The community takeover move comes after Pentland Ferries and Western Ferries called for ministers to consider the breaking up of Scotland's ferry network to improve provision.

A Transport Scotland spokesman said: “While most of Scotland’s air connectivity is provided on a commercial basis, we continue to support connectivity through the Air Discount Scheme which provides a 50% discount on core air fares, helping residents of our remote and island communities that rely on these connections. 

"In addition, we continue to support services at Barra, Tiree, Campeltown and Wick and fund HIAL to operate 10 airports serving the Highlands and Islands. There are currently no plans to change the Air Discount Scheme.

“Since this government was elected in May 2021, we have bought and deployed an additional vessel in MV Frisa in June, made significant progress in the construction of vessels 801 and 802, commissioned two new vessels for Islay, progressed investment in essential harbour infrastructure, and now we are delivering a further two new vessels. At the same time we are continuing to work on pursuing all reasonable and appropriate opportunities to enhance capacity and resilience in the short term through second hand vessels.

“We are committed to maintaining and improving lifeline ferry services that play a key role in supporting the economic, social and cultural development of island and remote mainland communities. We are already investing over £580 million in a five year infrastructure plan but we know we need to do more to address the current challenges facing our ferry network. As part of the forthcoming islands connectivity plan, we will set out a long-term investment programme for vessels and ports which the Project Neptune report calls for and islanders need to see.

“We share the desires of island communities for sustainable and effective ferry services and look forward to continuing our constructive engagement with them on future services and vessel replacements.”