Islanders face scheduled flights disruption

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Scheduled flights linking Coll and Colonsay to Oban could be grounded for at least six weeks after a contract for the service was not renewed.

Argyll and Bute Council abandoned the procurement process after only one tender was submitted and was classed as ‘non-compliant’.

For the past seven years, the essential air link has been run on behalf of the council by Hebridean Air Services Ltd (HASL) based at Oban Airport.

Martin McWilliam, HASL’s public service obligation manager, said the problem was the council had less money to pay for the service this time round.

He said the HASL tender had exceeded the money the council had put aside but insisted it had not gone up by ‘a huge amount’.

He told The Oban Times: ‘It was not a million miles away from what we have put in for the past four years. Our tender has not gone up by a huge amount. The problem is the money put aside is considerably less than it has been.

‘We run an essential air link service. We can’t imagine anyone being able to provide the current service we provide for any less money. The council has asked us to extend our service beyond the end of contract on May 15 but we are waiting to hear what happens at its finance meeting on Friday February 22.’

Among passengers who rely on the air service are eight young islanders from Coll and seven on Colonsay who travel to school in Oban and use the flights to get back home at weekends. Health professionals also use the service.

An Argyll and Bute Council spokesperson said: ‘We are actively pursuing a range of potential options to secure a positive future for the vital air services from Oban to the islands of Tiree, Coll and Colonsay following the conclusion of the tender procurement process. While an operator for the services could not be secured beyond the current contract, we remain committed to working towards a solution.’

More than £1.5million in council funding was made available for the three-year contract. Additionally, the council provides £750,000 annually for the operation of Coll, Colonsay and Oban airports.

Mr McWilliam said there was ‘other contract work out there’ for the one aircraft it owns and the other that it leases but if other work can not be found locally, it will have to leave Oban and deploy craft and crew elsewhere.

The issue is due to be discussed at a policy and resources meeting of the council today, February 14.

Details on the agenda read: ‘Following a non-compliant single tender submission for the next Argyll Air Services Public Service Obligation (PSO) contract, the procurement had to be abandoned. Given the delay in securing a new operator there is now a risk of a break in service from one contract finishing to the next starting.’

At the moment, no bookings can be made beyond May 15. Tiree’s flights to Oban are also affected by the situation but the island would still have flights to Glasgow.

Approval will be sought from the policy and resources committee to re-tender the Argyll Air Services PSO contract as quickly as possible but a new contract could not be awarded before June 28.

Committee members will be asked to note it is not legally possible to extend the existing air services contract.

Oban and Isles councillor Roddy McCuish said it was ‘a lifeline service not a luxury service’ and he was hoping a short-term contract could be offered to cover the break in service.

Hebridean Air Services Ltd (HASL) also runs a public service obligation for Shetland Islands Council from Tingwall.