SNP gives cautious welcome to UK Govt’s aviation commission

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  By a Newsnet reporter

The Scottish National Party has welcomed an announcement by the UK Government that it will set up a commission on aviation policy, but has questioned the narrowness of the commission’s remit.

SNP Westminster Transport spokesperson Angus MacNeil MP warned the UK government’s approach remained too focussed on the south-east of England – whether Heathrow should have a third runway or whether there should be a new airport in the Thames estuary.

Mr MacNeil has long argued for devolution of Air Passenger Duty to enable the Scottish Government to incentivise airlines to provide new direct international routes to and from Scottish airports, providing businesses and passengers with greater choice.

APD is a tax collected by the UK treasury on every domestic fight which starts at a UK airport. The amount charged depends on the class of the ticket and the distance from London to the destination capital, regardless of where the journey actually began.

The Chancellor George Osborne has already announced plans to devolve APD to Northern Ireland, which also benefited from a cut in the tax last November, where all tickets are deemed to be in the lowest band.

The devolution of APD is supported by all four of Scotland’s largest airports and by the Scottish Chamber of Commerce. It was also recommended by the Calman Commission on Scottish Devolution, although it was left out the Scotland Bill.

With a parliamentary question revealing that, last year, in excess of 3.3 million passengers – equivalent to 64 flights a day – from overseas were forced to transit via Heathrow or Gatwick when their destination was another airport within the UK, Mr MacNeil said a rebalancing of aviation policy could also ease congestion in the south-east.

The UK Government’s statement on the new commission seems to reinforce this metropolitan view when it states: “The UK is an island nation dependent upon its transport links to the rest of the world for its prosperity…Importantly the industry also provides this country with the global connections which our businesses need to sell their products abroad and which inward investors to the UK demand.

“Today the UK is amongst the best connected countries in the world. Our airports, particularly those in the South East, deliver direct flights to over 360 destinations, including those of greatest economic importance. London has more flights to more destinations than any other city in Europe…The Government is determined to deliver a solution which will continue to provide that connectivity in the short, medium and longer term.”

Mr MacNeil, the MP for Na h-Eileanan an Iar, said:

“The creation of this commission is a welcome step, but the debate remains too focussed on the south-east – whether Heathrow should have a third runway or whether there should be a new airport in the Thames estuary.

“There has been an historic imbalance in UK aviation policy that has held-back Scottish airports and the development of direct international links.

“It is the worst of all worlds because, as well as leaving passengers with fewer choices and higher costs, the UK Government’s decisions have actually created the congestion that beleaguers Heathrow and Gatwick airports.

“Department for Transport figures show that, over the last year alone, millions of passengers from overseas were forced to transit via Heathrow or Gatwick when their destination was another airport within the UK. And these figures only show the number of inward passengers – not the number of domestic travellers forced to route through these airports as they head abroad on holiday or business.

“By devolving responsibility for air passenger duty now the UK Government could help reverse the historic imbalance in UK aviation policy, providing a boost for the Scottish economy and passengers, as well as easing congestion at Heathrow and Gatwick.

“Given the times and distances involved in travelling, Scotland is disproportionately hit by hikes in air passenger duty – we need to take control of this tax to give our businesses a fighting chance to compete.

“There is overwhelming evidence that Air Passenger Duty should be devolved to Scotland, to give our aviation industry the competitive edge that it needs. The Scottish Chamber of Commerce has called for it, airport operators have called for it – even the Calman Commission called for it.

“Devolution of APD would enable the Scottish Government to incentivise airlines to provide new direct international routes, providing Scotland’s passengers with enhanced options as they go about their business more freely and more effectively.”