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A major new study has concluded there is a compelling case on social and economic grounds for introducing Public Service Obligations to protect lifeline Scottish air routes.

It shows that PSOs are used widely and effectively in many European countries; that they result in cheaper travel for remote communities; and that it is perfectly legal for the UK Government to approve PSOs, both to assist island and rural mainland communities and to secure slots at congested hub air centres, such as Gatwick, London..

The Highlands and Islands Strategic Transport Partnership (HITRANS) is now to commission further research to identify which routes would benefit most from the designation and campaign strongly to persuade the UK Government to use PSOs more widely.

A major lobbying of Scottish MSPs in planned for early next month.

The survey was carried out for HITRANS to compare the application of Public Service Obligations, which regulate frequency, aircraft type and fares on routes serving peripheral regions, to internal air services in Scotland with other EU Member States. The brief also included a comparison of slot reservation for regional services at the main national airports; and subsidy levels and the cost of air travel on internal routes.

The study found clear evidence to suggest that other countries have a stronger commitment to air services for remote and island communities than exists within Scotland. It identified a number of routes in Scotland - linking mainland population centres with island communities - which, if the criteria adopted by Governments in other countries were applied, would clearly be eligible for PSO status and public subsidy.

France is an example where political pressure applied by regional authorities to establish and sustain air services, has resulted in widespread adoption of the PSO mechanism by the French Government. Portugal, Ireland and Norway are also more active than the UK in obliging carriers to maintain very high minimum levels of frequency; use fast pressurised aircraft; and set affordable maximum fares.

The Governments in France, Italy and Germany reserve slots at their capacity constrained capital city airports for internal air services to their remote regions. Paris Orly, Frankfurt, Berlin, Rome and Milan all have reserved slots. The study suggests that the case is equally strong on socio-economic grounds for reserving slots at Gatwick for the Inverness service, and is entirely in accordance with Article 9 of the EUís regulations.

The study also shows that fares are higher on Scottish routes than on comparable routes in other EU countries. For example, Aberdeen to Sumburgh; Glasgow to Benbecula; Inverness to Stornoway; Inverness to Kirkwall; and Edinburgh to Wick have higher fares than comparable Norwegian, Irish French and Spanish routes, where PSOs are in place.

Highland Councillor Charles King, Chairman of HITRANS, a partnership of seven local councils, Highlands and Islands Enterprise and the Scottish Council for Development and Industry, said: "It is very appropriate that HITRANS, our new regional transport partnership, should launch itself by publishing this major new study addressing a key transport matter for our region. The consultants have concluded that there is a compelling case on social and economic grounds for extending PSOs on Scottish air routes. You cannot overstate the importance of reliable and cost effective air services to rural and island communities. We are going to meet MSPs and MPs over the coming weeks to press this case. We need more information on which routes should have PSOs and to provide this we are commissioning further work to show where lower fare structures regulated within a PSO price cap will generate economic and welfare benefits to our communities. This work will be completed by the end of July when we are to have discussions with the Minister."

"On the Gatwick issue, I am delighted that the study confirms our view that it is perfectly legal and in line with what other Member States are doing, to reserve slots for the Inverness service at the London hub."

Councillor Stephen Hagan, Chairman of Orkney islands Councilís Transport Committee, said: ĎThe Partnership sees the issue of excessively high air fares as a major constraint on economic and social development, particularly in our islands and remoter mainland communities. We intend to make this a key issue in our meetings with MSPs, MPs and the Minister."

Councillor Norman Macdonald of the Western Isles Council said: "The problem of high fares and lack of capacity on the Stornoway flights from Glasgow and Inverness is a significant deterrent to attracting inward investment to our community. We are already in discussion with the Scottish Executive on this issue and will fully support the HITRANS initiative to lobby for PSOs on these routes."