Air links play a critical role in Scotland’s economy and society, connecting different communities in Scotland together and us with the rest of the UK and internationally.

We all know about the importance of air routes for our tourism businesses and business travel, but they are also essential for freight including some of Scotland’s leading exports, attracting investment and talent to Scotland, and access to public services for people in some of our remote communities.

For example, it provides a vital connection for the education sector with around a third of all higher education students and a quarter of all staff at Scotland’s universities coming from overseas.

Given the diversity of places in Scotland and roles played by air links, the aviation industry is itself a diverse one. Before the pandemic, 1,600 people worked at Scotland’s three largest airports, Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Edinburgh, with around 14,500 overall working at their campuses, serving routes which connected our largest city regions domestically and internationally. In the Highlands and Islands, Inverness performs this function, but there are also the lifeline regional and local flights.

But all have suffered during the pandemic. The past two years of Covid-19-related travel restrictions have been amongst the toughest the aviation sector has seen. Passenger numbers collapsed by 75 per cent, with, for example, Glasgow Airport reporting the lowest levels since the 1970s. Recovery of our links to other parts of the UK and the world directly supports the recovery of our economy and society, after the pandemic. And in the wake of our exit from the EU, ensuring that we maintain good air links with our key EU and non-EU partners and markets is more important than ever to future prosperity.

Although the lifting of Covid-19 travel restrictions has boosted bookings, the outlook for the coming few years is far from plain sailing. Skills shortages have presented a problem as many experienced staff left the sector during the pandemic and the current geopolitical situation has inevitably added further uncertainty. Scotland’s aviation industry is working hard to re-build and we need the Scottish and UK governments to work with it on recovery and transition to a more sustainable future. As the sector rebuilds after the pandemic, competition to re-establish routes is stiff with countries such as Denmark and Ireland taking steps to provide new route development support to their aviation sectors.

There is also rising demand for freight capacity, currently a small percentage of total freight transport. The expansion of e-commerce is driving demand for fast delivery and other factors including volatile shipping rates have made air freight more attractive. Some airlines, including Boeing are now retrofitting passenger planes to manage cargo as a result.


The pattern of travel is also inevitably changing with some business travel replaced by technology. However, air connectivity will continue to be critical to business and to investors for both trade and for foreign direct investment (FDI).

In 2020, Scotland was the most important destination for FDI outside of London and the strength of transport infrastructure remains one of the top investment drivers for investors looking at locations outside of London.

Many of these current and future issues are considered in the Scottish Government’s discussion document, a precursor to the forthcoming aviation strategy. Here at the Scottish Council for Development and Industry (SCDI) we have drawn on our research and member views to make several recommendations for the strategy.

First, we need recovery in the aviation sector to drive forward the commitment of the industry to ending its contribution to climate change. The UK’s aviation sector was the first in the world to commit to net zero by 2050 in its roadmap for “flying without carbon”. However, with Scotland committing to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2045 and with aviation emissions accounting for 4.5% of all emissions the pressure is on to accelerate progress.

Scotland’s airports have set out their commitments to net-zero emissions. AGS group, the owner of Glasgow and Aberdeen airports, has pledged to become net-zero emissions by 2030 with the help of a major planned investment in solar power. Edinburgh Airport has partnered with energy company Orsted to meet its net-zero target by 2040 and Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd has committed to getting its 11 airports to net-zero emissions by 2040.

To meet these targets will require a collective effort. Major manufacturers such as Airbus and Boeing are investing significant R&D in electric or hydrogen planes with Airbus stating an intention to bring a commercial hydrogen plane into use by 2035. Closer to home, Scotland is pioneering the use of electric planes with the first successful flights taking place in Orkney in 2021. Scaling these up for major commercial use will take time.

In the interim the focus is on bringing forward improved designs for fuel efficiency, new materials, and lightweight and cost-effective manufacturing solutions. Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF), made from renewable sources or waste, will also help reduce emissions in the medium term.

We encourage the UK and Scottish governments to work together with the aviation sector to bring forward a SAF mandate at a rate which encourages progressive behaviour change over time, creating a competitive advantage for the UK. We have the opportunity to produce SAF at scale at both Grangemouth and St Fergus. SCDI encourages the Scottish Government to move quickly on these to become a leader in the UK, creating an attractive option for airlines looking for places to refuel and supporting Scotland’s efforts to rebuild its route network.

Second, following agreement between government and industry around environmental outcomes and tracking, the Scottish Government should support the sector’s recovery through a new Air Route Development Fund brought forward within the revised EU state aid rules.

Third, both governments need to protect good connectivity for people and businesses around Scotland by securing regular links to the UK’s major airports, above all the hub at Heathrow, for Inverness and Aberdeen.

Fourth, to prioritise and bring forward at pace, investment in infrastructure which supports the expansion of air freight, including refrigeration, and the decarbonisation of airport infrastructure including surface transport connections, such as the Clyde Metro link to Glasgow Airport, now a priority project in the Strategic Transport Projects Review 2. Investment in infrastructure and innovative zero emissions solutions could be funded in part by an Air Departure Tax introduced at a lower level and ring-fenced for this purpose.

Finally, for Scotland to play an active role in innovation around the decarbonisation of the UK’s aviation sector through the Future of Flight/Civil Aviation Authority programme which includes Scottish projects. A sector specific innovation plan should be taken forward by a new aviation industry group in Scotland, working closely with the UKs Aerospace and Defence Industry Group.

This is a time when the impact of the loss of connectivity on our lives and businesses has been brought into sharper focus and the need for its recovery if Scotland is to be a player on the international stage is evident. Support for the sector to decarbonise and innovate will, therefore, be critical elements of the new strategy if Scotland is to achieve its economic potential, achieve fairness in connectivity for all of Scotland and become a leader in fair and green trade, enabling a greener aviation sector in Scotland to take off.

Clare Reid: Director of Policy & Public Affairs, Scottish Council Development & Industry .