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Urgent Question: The North-south Air Link

March 14, 2017

9 speeches by…

  • Elin Jones
  • Kenneth Skates
  • Andrew R.T. Davies
  • Rhun ap Iowerth
  • David Rowlands

Elin Jones

I now call on Andrew R.T. Davies to ask the next urgent question. Andrew R.T. Davies.

Kenneth Skates

Yes. Can I thank the Member and refer him to the written statement issued yesterday. The intra-Wales air service review has been completed and once findings have been analysed I will make a further announcement. In the meantime, I’m pleased that we have agreed a rolling contract with Eastern Airways to operate the service.

Andrew R.T. Davies

Thank you, Cabinet Secretary, and thank you for your statement that was issued yesterday clarifying some of the measures that the Welsh Government has put in place. As a user of this service, I can literally leave my front door and be in north Wales by 8.40 a.m., and coming off the Isle of Anglesey. I fully support the service if it was commercially viable, and it is disheartening now that this is the third time in 18 months that the operator has either gone out of business or had its safety certificate withdrawn. There is a considerable Government subsidy that is put into this air link of £1.2 million. I believe that £0.5 million is also spent on the terminal and the running of the terminal up in north Wales on RAF Valley. So, what is crystal clear now is that, with the review that you’ve commissioned, there does need to be a full evaluation of the options available to make this route more commercially viable or, regrettably, actually bring an end to this route because, obviously, the taxpayer really is not getting value for money when you look at the sums involved and, regrettably, the passenger numbers who are using it. And I regret that, because, as I said, as someone who supports the service, I’d like to see a more commercially viable route developed in this instance, but we can’t carry on as we are, every six months or so, with an operator either going out of business or having its safety licence withdrawn. Can you indicate what the current commercial terms are that you’ve had to engage the new operator on, because in your statement you indicate that there is an additional expense that you’re having to incur, and I think it is only right and fair that we understand what that expense is, because you have a limited budget and that money must come from that budget? Can you also indicate the timeline where you will be bringing forward the evaluation that you have made as Cabinet Secretary of the report that you’ve commissioned? You talk of a number of weeks. I’ve most probably been here long enough to know that a number of weeks can be many things in response—and I mean this with the greatest respect—from Government Ministers, and I think it is important that we get clarity on that. And thirdly, can you confirm that this evaluation has looked at all the options? There were no no-go areas, because I know my colleague from Clwyd West has championed the ability to establish a route to north-east Wales, rather than just focusing solely on north-west Wales.

Kenneth Skates

Can I thank the Member for his questions and his keen interest in this area? I’m pleased, first of all, that the intra-Wales air service was saved; it was the only one of Van Air Europe’s air services to be saved, and that was as a consequence of tireless work by my team within Government over the weekend, and particularly during Saturday. My heart goes out to the many passengers on other Van Air services who have been left stranded in Northern Ireland and on the Isle of Man, but we do now have a rolling agreement with Eastern Airways to provide the service. Now, we are using, as I’ve outlined already, the budget that we would ordinarily use for Van Air and Citywing. However, as the Member indicated, we are having to contribute a small but not insignificant sum to maintain the service during this period. This resource is available within the existing budget for the north-south air link. However, last year, as the Member outlined, I did request a thorough—a thorough—review of the intra-Wales air service, which has looked at a wide range of options, from ceasing the service entirely to changing service patterns, increasing provision, looking at the actual type of aircraft that’s used and also assessing whether alternative options in terms of connectivity are available in the short and medium term. We’ve also looked at the potential of using other airports, not just in north-east Wales—but I take what the Member says about Hawarden Airport—but other small airports in Wales. The report has taken longer than expected due to a range of factors, but it is being finalised this month, and I’ll therefore be in a position to assess it over the Easter period, with a view of making an announcement on the future of the service in the next term. This service is not just important to Anglesey; it’s also significant for Cardiff and south-east Wales, ensuring that we are a better-connected and united nation. But I will need to consider the recommendations of the review alongside the recent operator problems. And, as I say, I aim to make an announcement as soon as possible regarding the long-term future of this air service.

Rhun ap Iowerth

I’m grateful to the Minister and officials for making sure that the service was able to continue without a break. The leader of the Conservatives says that he lives within spitting distance of the airport in Cardiff and he says that he uses the service from time to time to get up to Anglesey, but, as somebody who is somewhat isolated from those five-hour journeys from north to south Wales, it doesn’t surprise me that he is sanguine about the possibility of losing the air service, unless it is commercially viable. We know that all transport, to a lesser or a greater extent, is subsidised by public funds. That is the reality of the way transport works, and I would be grateful for a few assurances from the Cabinet Secretary now that he agrees with me that this isn’t, by now, a desirable service, but that it is a vital part of the transport mix, that it is a crucial business link for many people in businesses wishing to do business between north and south Wales, and that it has become crucial for the conduct of public service in Wales. This is not just a means for people from the frozen north to come down to Cardiff; this is a means for Government Ministers to make sure that they are able to keep close ties with the north of Wales. So, I’d be grateful if he would confirm that it is vital, now, as part of our transport mix. I would be grateful for assurances that any changes to services—and, of course, services must be reviewed—would not lead to a position where a flight from the north would get into Cardiff later, or would leave Cardiff earlier, because a flight needs to be practical and it needs to work in a way that allows people to conduct their business. In actual fact, I would ask him also to confirm whether he has considered means by which the flight could arrive in Cardiff earlier in the morning and leave later in the day in order to extend the working day for people connecting to the capital city. Also, it is a frequent request to expand air services, and I’d be grateful for comments on what kind of expansion he has in mind, including, perhaps, links to London that I know we had an opportunity, informally, to discuss yesterday. Finally, on a practical note for those who’ve already bought tickets with Citywing, there was an issue when the last company went out of business and people had to reclaim their money from a company that had gone into liquidation. We know how difficult that was and that will be the same in this case. Could the Minister tell us what efforts the Government will put in to ensure that those who have paid for tickets will be able to have the best chance possible of getting reimbursement?

Kenneth Skates

Can I thank the Member for his questions and take the last question first? Officials are already talking to Citywing about the potential to claw back the cost of the tickets. We’ve been very clear—and we were over the weekend—that passengers are able to go to either Anglesey or Cardiff airports and catch the flights on Eastern Airways with the bookings made through Citywing. But, in terms of those bookings that may have been lost, or where passengers are not willing to travel with Eastern Airways, consumer protection law applies as normal, as well as the well-established air travel organisers licence protections. But I would gladly take up any cases that the Member may have of passengers who have been left out of pocket as a consequence of Citywing’s demise. It’s not just the public sector—although the public sector clearly has considerable benefit from this service—that relies on it. We believe that approximately half of the journeys that are taken on the air service are taken by people representing private sector interests. So, it’s actually a very important service for both the private and public sectors. The review will consider whether it’s merely important or whether it is, indeed, vital. I wouldn’t wish to prejudge the outcome of that review. I’ll also consider whether the North Wales Economic Ambition Board has deemed the intra-Wales air service to be a key component of any growth bid deal, and I’ll also be listening to the views of local authorities across north Wales. It is essential that we have good, frequent transport links with the north of the country, as a Member, like Rhun ap Iorwerth, who represents a northern constituency. But any form of public transport must be sustainable, and we must ensure that we don’t just keep pumping subsidy into a service that is seeing a reducing number of passengers. There must be alternatives, whether that’s through increasing the number of passengers, and, in this regard, I think it’s important that we consider the future demand through Wylfa coming on stream and other economic developments on Anglesey and in the north of Wales. All of these factors are being considered within the review, and I’m looking forward to receiving it in the very short term.

David Rowlands

Cabinet Minister, I understand that Loganair has operated a successful operation connecting the Orkney islands to Kirkwall on the Scottish mainland for some eight years. Would the Cabinet Secretary consider looking at the model used for this service, given the collapse of the third operator on the north Wales-to-Cardiff route? And will he also consider the use of Hawarden aerodrome as an alternative to Valley, Anglesey? And I also understand that there are new models of aircraft now—single-engined—which carry the same number of passengers. When he’s looking at those who will provide the service, will he be considering the type of aircraft used?

Kenneth Skates

Can I thank the Member for his questions? One of the big challenges that we have with Anglesey is the type of aircraft and civil aircraft that can fly into and out of Anglesey without the need for additional investment in the infrastructure there. So, we would need to look at investing in facilities and the infrastructure if we were to increase the size of aircraft that operate to and from the airport. I’ve always held the belief that Hawarden airport could offer considerable benefits for the north Wales economy as well, but there are problems again with the infrastructure there, because the runway is quite a bit shorter than normal airport runways. So, again, investment would be required there. There are also challenges to overcome in terms of securing the slots that would satisfy Airbus, who rely on that particular runway to bring in and to take out components for aircraft manufactured in Toulouse. The Member does raise the interesting point of Loganair. This is a service that we’ve examined very closely. We’re trying to learn as many lessons as possible from around the world insofar as how air services can operate in a sustainable way within a small country. Again, that information will be available to me as part of the review that’s being undertaken.