Transport minister Jenny Gilruth said she hopes a new pay offer will "unlock" a dispute that has led to Loganair suspending flights from Scots islands to Inverness for six weeks.

Anger has erupted over the decision to suspend flights to Inverness while Scottish Government-owned Highlands and Islands Airports Limited (HIAL) is locked in a dispute with trade union members over pay, initiating walkouts and work-to-rule at airports.

Services from Inverness to Stornoway and Benbecula, and from Inverness to Kirkwall and Sumburgh, have been suspended as result.

The company operates most airports across the north of Scotland, including Inverness, Kirkwall, Sumburgh, Stornoway and Benbecula.

Unions representing employees at airports operated by HIAL are presently engaged in discontinuous strike action and further action short of a strike, in the form of a work-to-rule.

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Loganair operates most of Scotland’s island services with daily flights from HIAL airports on the islands to Inverness.

The Herald: Jenny Gilruth MSP.

Jenny Gilruth

However, Loganair decided to suspend regular flights to the islands from March 17 in a move that will last six weeks until the end of April.

Ms Gilruth, who says there was no warning to ministers of Loganair's action, now says there are hopes of a resolution to the pay dispute which will be considered by ministers.

Alasdair Allan, the SNP MP for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (the Western Isles) said islanders were "horrified" by Loganair's "disproportionate and draconian" move.

"The impact on patients including cancer patients alone is almost unthinkable. Seriously ill people rely on the service to access treatment on the mainland and it is unclear how operations, appointments and scans will be carried out otherwise.

"Loganair is a company which has directly and indirectly received substantial funding through the public purse and has placed NHS Western Isles in an atrocious position."

Ms Gilruth said: "It is disappointing that Loganair have suspended these routes, although I am hopeful for a resolution before March 17. I met with the chairman and managing director of HIAL on Saturday morning to stress the need for timely resolution to the pay dispute. And I asked for a new business case to be presented urgently to ministers.

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"Following further discussions with unions yesterday morning HIAL have developed further proposals, which subject to HIAL's board agreement will be considered shortly by ministers. Transport Scotland officials have also discussed the situation with Loganair which operates these routes on a commercial basis."

Neil Bibby, Scottish Labour's transport spokesman told the minister: "The inescapable and scandalous fact is that the Scottish Government would still be sitting on its hands ignoring the damage to the islands if it had not been for the dramatic escalation, threatened by Loganair. That is not how things should work.

The Herald: Neil Bibby Scottish Parliament

"Cancer patients should not have to be subjected to fear in order to get a response from government. Islands should not be out of sight and out of mind until there is the risk of political embarrassment. Why has the transport minister suddenly discovered a role now, when she repeatedly refused to become involved over the past five months, while HIAL said their own hands were tied by the Scottish Government's pay policy."

Ms Gilruth in the Scottish Parliament said her political opponent had "somewhat mischaracterized the situation".

"It's not true to say that I've not been engaged throughout this process. And I do share Mr Bibby's concerns, which is exactly why when this decision was communicated to me on Friday, I sought the first available opportunity to speak directly to HIAL on Saturday morning.

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"Now clearly there's a need for an urgent resolution to this dispute. I'm particularly concerned for example, about any implications in relation to medical appointments. That is is a matter that I've asked Transport Scotland to raise directly with Loganair.

"This is a decision for Loganair. Loganair's view is that action short of a strike in the form of a work to rule leads to short notice cancellations. Loganair have therefore taken the commercial decision in that respect because of the costs incurred by cancellations. This is not a matter in which government ministers can become involved because the Scottish Government has no direct role in their provision."

Customers booked on Loganair flights during the time of the suspension will be contacted and offered the option of rebooking on alternative routes or a full refund.

Loganair’s chief executive Jonathan Hinkles has been defending the move.

He said: “Loganair’s experience from the past three disputes over four years now at Highlands and Islands Airports is that continuing to provide a service during work-to-rule is incredibly difficult.”

He said vital services cannot maintain a high standard during a work-to-rule “That then leaves us in a position where we are suddenly told at the drop of a hat that the airport is going to be closed for the next hour because the controllers need a mandatory rest break or that certain aircraft can’t land there because the fire service is manned adequately for that type of aircraft.

“Having disruption on the day and having flights cancelled on the day, which when you’re completely dependant on that to get to a hospital appointment at Raigmore, is the last thing we want, it’s the last thing our customers want.

“By putting this in place in advance, we said to people, ‘Look, this service is not going to be there for this period of time’ until this industrial issue is sorted out.”

A Loganair spokesman said: “We completely understand that this unprecedented step will be unwelcome news to communities who depend on the air services Loganair provides.

“We have sadly concluded that it’s simply not realistic to continue our efforts to provide services between HIAL airports when the action short of a strike is intended to disrupt and counter those efforts at every turn.