Oban losing tourism income due to airport’s 9 to 5 office hours, says pilot

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Argyll is losing tourism income due to Oban Airport’s ‘restrictive’ 9am to 5.45pm office hours, claims one pilot whose aviation safaris could bring £30,000 to the local economy each year.

Planes can use Oban Airport out-of-hours if they obtain a £48 indemnity permit, but Argyll and Bute Council, which operates the airport at North Connel, excludes companies from qualifying.

Dave Jelly, director of Freedom Aviation, an aviation safari and flight training company based at Cotswold Airport at Kemble, Gloucestershire, complained in a letter to Pippa Milne, chief executive of Argyll & Bute Council.

‘We specialise in aviation safaris,’ explained Mr Jelly, ‘visiting Scotland twice a month through the summer months with between two and five aircraft, with anything from four to 15 pilots.

‘We would love to use Oban during our safaris, but your operational hours are particularly restrictive. We would normally wish to be airborne by 8am, and flying until 8pm during the summer. Your availability is 9am to 5.45pm (local) maximum.

‘You advertise: “Use of the aerodrome outside of its operating hours requires a valid indemnity permit (obtained from Oban Airport) prior visit.” Which costs £48.

‘Having discussed this with staff at Oban Airport, I understand that out-of-hours permits can be purchased by individuals, but not by companies! I fail to understand the logic in this, as surely the permit is for an “aircraft”?’

The council says only non-commercial aircraft (under 2,730kg maximum take-off weight) qualify for the indemnity permit. This, the council argues, excludes Freedom Aviation, which is ‘classed as commercial activity’.

‘Both Oban Airport and the tourist business in the locality are losing out because of this restrictive practice,’ Mr Jelly said. ‘The airport is losing landing fee income and fuel sales, the local area is losing dinner, bed & breakfast, as well as drinks and incidental snacks that we would purchase to take with us in the aircraft.’

Mr Jelly calculated 10 trips a year would bring £30,000 income to the local economy. ‘This is the loss of revenue to Argyll & Bute,’ he said. ‘I’m hoping as chief executive you can see the bigger picture and the ongoing losses to your area and hope you would consider allowing me to purchase out of hours permits for my aircraft?’

Mr Jelly also disputed the council’s classification: ‘Freedom Aviation do not operate “Commercial flights”. We are a flight training organisation and specialise in hour building for private pilots who are training toward their commercial licence.

‘Therefore I believe that we meet all your requirements to qualify for the out-of-hours permit scheme, which once purchased /issued will allow us to contribute to the economic growth of the region.’

However, the council’s position remained unchanged, but, it said, it ‘does offer, by prior arrangement with the Aerodrome Operator extended operational hours at Oban Airport for flights that are ineligible for the above permit.’

An Argyll and Bute Council spokesperson told The Oban Times: ‘Safety is paramount in all our operations and indemnity permits have a clear role in making clear the responsibilities of those using the airport out of hours. It is vital that people are aware of the circumstances they’ll be flying under outwith airport opening times.

‘This includes having no access to flight information from Oban Tower or onsite fire service provision. Providing indemnity permits is standard procedure at many airfields. The Scottish Government has a similar process at 11 of their licensed airfields.

‘There are potential options to extend opening hours, but with additional costs to users to reduce the risk in the event of any incident.

‘We invest millions in providing our airport services, a cost many other councils don’t have to provide. Operating costs are around £1 million with an additional £2.1 million in subsidised flights to the islands, supporting both our residents and the tourism industry.

‘Oban airport also facilitates Hebridean Air Services to operate commercial flights during the summer season, bringing tourists to Tiree, Coll, Colonsay and Islay. We have also recently invested in the airport with the provision of aviation fuel.’