A Skye air service could be among the first in the world to harness electric planes, it has been predicted, after Highland councillors gave their support to trial flights in and out of Ashaig.
On Thursday 16th May the council’s environment, development and infrastructure committee backed £170,000 to go towards supporting a new trial air service for the island.
An amendment to delay support for a flight trial in light of a new council commitment to become carbon neutral by 2025 was defeated by 19 votes to 2 as the committee ratified what Skye councillors had themselves approved in March this year.
Officials had concluded that the flights would have a ‘minor negative effect’ on the area’s climate change contributions, but over time these could be mitigated by technology.
Ranald Robertson, from the regional transport body Hitrans, told the committee that an American firm is pioneering electrically-powered flights – the type of which could be used to serve Scottish islands and help reduce the environmental impact of aviation.
Mr Robertson said the firm Ampaire had successfully modified a Cessna 337 aircraft and had plans to partner with the Hawaiian company Mokulele Airlines on its short-range flight routes in the pacific islands.
He added that Ampaire were also looking to develop the technology in the twin otter aircraft that is expected to be used in any Ashaig flight trial.
He said: “Electric aircraft are not currently operational in commercial flight, but Ampaire recently met Highland stakeholders with a view to establishing trials which could happen as early as October this year.
“The Scottish Government have declared a climate change emergency so I would suggest that the Scottish Government would be supportive of that innovation and the real opportunity for Scotland to be in a pioneering position with this technology.”
The council cash commitment of £170,000 will go towards an initial investment of between £1.53 million and £1.77 million which is required to improve infrastructure at Ashaig and enable a trial service to start.
EDI committee chair Allan Henderson is to write to the Scottish Transport Secretary on behalf of the Highland Council, HITRANS and Highlands and Islands Enterprise, seeking further financial and technical support.
As well as the funds to aid a trial service, the committee also agreed an increase in the landing fees and a scheme to introduce landing cards for existing users of the runway.
At the EDI committee meeting on 16th May, Culloden LibDem councillor Trish Robertson, backed by party colleague Angela MacLean, had proposed the delay to allow the council to assess what it needed to do meet its carbon reduction targets.
However, Skye councillor John Gordon said the project was an “easy target” on climate change grounds.
He added: “If we’re to stop two 14-seater twin otters a day – that could be electric – coming out of Ashaig, what is that then saying to Inverness airport.
“The reintroduction of flights has been a priority for Skye councillors in this and the last council term. The progress has been welcomed by many individuals, businesses and the wider communities of Skye and Lochalsh.”
Caol and Mallaig LibDem Denis Rixon suggested a petition against flights, which contained over 1000 signatures, had been misleading.
“Apart from people from the UK the petition had representatives from 44 other countries, including 50 French, 47 Americans, 40 Germans, 25 Australians, 24 Jamaicans, 22 Malaysians, 17 Dutch and one from Mauritius.
“There is nothing wrong with that, but we can’t call them local.
“I counted 338 from Skye, including one lady who appears three times.
“I’ve no doubt about the sincerity of those who are opposed, but the over-riding principle is democratic accountability. Councillors, the local representatives, decided at the Skye and Raasay committee to seek approval.
“They are better informed of all the arguments for or against than I am. I’m sure it should largely be decided by the people of Skye.
“People who live close to airports should be careful telling those who don’t to be content with their lot.”
The Ashaig airport plans have attracted some local opposition on environmental and cost grounds, but supporters say an air service would improve access to health services, boost tourism and support the needs of business.
The annual operational costs for an upgraded licenced airport have been estimated at a range of £320,000 to £380,000 a-year, while it’s reckoned state aid through a Public Service Obligation to reduce fares would cost a further £450,000 per annum.
The case for an air service was identified in recent studies by consultants on behalf of the Skye Airport Working Group – a body that has representation from the Highland Council along with regional transport body HITRANS, Highlands and Islands Enterprise, Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd and Transport Scotland.
The airport at Ashaig is owned by Highland Council, but the local authority has said it could consider leasing the facility to HIAL – which already operates a network of 11 regional airports in Scotland.
Skye and Lochalsh has been identified as the regional centre with the longest journey times to the central belt in Scotland. For the majority in the region, the drive times are in excess of five hours, while existing public transport takes around seven hours. Skye and Lochalsh is the only major population centre in the HITRANS area where a day trip to the central belt is not seen as viable.
Skye has been without a scheduled air service since 1988.
Article by Keith MacKenzie.