Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Island Transport issues a threat to the West Cornwall Economy

Even before BIH announced the closure of its helicopter service to the islands the tourism engine that is the Isles of Scilly was faltering with visitor numbers declining in the face of high transport costs and competition for other quality holiday destinations.  The first 6 weeks without the helicopter service has identified new problems both for the community in the winter and the health of the tourism economy in 2013.  Chief amongst these concerns for West Cornwall (and the islands) in the short to medium term is getting a more durable runway for Lands End Airport.

Dick Cliffe, Chamber Chairman, explains some of the implications of current transport problems below.

The first 6 weeks without the BIH helicopter has been grim indeed for islanders on Scilly.  With the Scillonian III ferry not operating in the winter the islanders have been reliant upon Skybus for passenger travel to and from the islands and this service is much more weather dependent than the helicopter ever was.  Fog was an issue for both air routes but the low landing speed of the aircraft suitable for short runways makes them vulnerable to crosswinds.  In addition, the grass runway at Lands End is vulnerable to getting waterlogged (and susceptible to damage) in wet weather and there has been plenty of that recently.

The result has been a number of days when there have been no flights on or off the islands and many when services have been delayed or diverted to Newquay.  As Newquay Airport is poorly served by public transport it has meant severe inconvenience for many travellers.

The Isles of Scilly Steamship Group, owners of Skybus, are investing a lot of money in improved passenger facilities and a new Air Traffic Control tower at Lands End Airport.  They are now urgently considering options for improving the grass strip at Lands End.  There are a range of options because it is not just a case of an asphalt runway – yes or no.  There are various kinds of semi-permanent matting that can be laid, some types originally developed for military purposes.  With major outlays on both airport buildings and a refurbishment of the Scillonian, sorting out the runway at Lands End will be an extra cost the Company could do without but it is important it goes ahead for the Company, the islands and West Cornwall.

Currently plans for meeting passenger demand in the summer involve  20 flights a day from Lands End Airport verses 6 a day from Newquay and 5 a day from Exeter.  That is about 1000 movements (landings and take offs) a month on Lands End Airport’s grass strip.  If we are unlucky with the summer weather a lot of the flights will have to be re-routed to Newquay.  The longer distance means more time and fuel.  It will be difficult to achieve as many return trips in a day with the fleet of aircraft available.  For West Cornwall, in the worst case, it could means tens of thousands of air passengers not routing through Lands End with the knock on effect of reduced demand for accommodation and meals in Penzance.  This could mean the loss of many hundreds of thousands of pounds from the local economy in 2013.  If the arrangement became permanent with Newquay becoming the main departure point for visitors to the Isles of Scilly then the loss to West Cornwall would be much larger with holidaymakers adding extra days in Padstow to their holiday rather than extra days in St Ives or elsewhere in Penwith.
Of course, not all passengers destined for Scilly are due to fly from Lands End.  Skybus has rejigged its services and Exeter will become a more significant hub for visitors to Scilly in the future (from 11 March).  However, with a ticket price of £240 return it will not be a route for the more price conscious.

Even before BIH’s announcement, there was concern that the tourism engine of the Isles of Scilly was faltering with declining visitor numbers.  2012 has proved to be a bad year overall.  Weather was a factor but the common refrain from loyal regular visitors on modest budgets was simply the cost of holidaying on the islands.  Transport costs are an increasing barrier as the trend to short breaks rather than long holidays grows making transport a larger percentage of total holiday costs.   If the trend continues then the islands will become a more exclusive destination for a smaller number of wealthy visitors.  This would mean painful changes on the islands with knock effects for Penzance & West Cornwall.  Such a development would undermine the entirely commercially funded ferry service that already only operates in the summer months for commercial reasons.

Penzance Chamber of Commerce is a founder member of the Friends of the Isles of Scilly Transport (FRIST), a community and business group campaigning for affordable and reliable year round lifeline transport links between the Isles of Scilly and the mainland.

For current information go to www.frist.org.uk

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