Many have wondered why, but the reason is more straightforward than you might think – regional airlines charge the actual cost of their operation. So you’re paying the real price for what you get.
While researching this article, I soon realised that regional aviation isn’t cheap for many complicated reasons. I didn’t know what those reasons were or how they impacted the consumer but I wanted to find out, so I spoke to an expert. Iain Muir has been a fixed and rotary wing aircraft pilot since 1989. I asked Iain a simple question: what are the main reasons it costs more to fly from Glasgow to Shetland than it does from Glasgow to Tenerife?
Iain first discussed the distance of regional flights in Scotland, their capacity and how that can impact costs. “The airport fees at each end have to be paid regardless of the distance of the journey. The shorter distance means the cost per seat will be higher to cover the proportion of the fee. The less number of seats in the plane add further to this”, adding “the main market for Tenerife is holiday tourism. The main reason for travel to Shetland is business and local commute”.
All the costs with less capacity
That makes sense to me; fewer passengers over shorter distances means there are fewer passengers to offset costs outwith the airlines’ control. Loganair, the airline serving most domestic routes in Scotland, agrees with Iain. The airline told me that small markets can only support smaller, appropriately sized aircraft – a 747 isn’t quite able to land on the beach at Barra, for example. And despite their size smaller passenger aircraft often have similar overall costs to larger aircraft. While low-cost carriers like Ryanair have two pilots, Loganair also has two pilots on its services and two engines on its planes to overhaul.
A Loganair spokesperson said:
“There are also significant costs associated with the provision of lifeline island routes. For example, the cost of aviation fuel in Shetland is three times that at Edinburgh or Alicante – yet we have to uplift it to fly. We have to maintain year-round ground handling, de-icing and servicing infrastructure ourselves in island airports and cover the costs of this across only a limited number of flights in the day, whereas low-cost airlines contract in services and pay for them only when they need them at large airports where this is possible.”
Loganair also made me aware that low-cost carriers use very cheap loss-leader prices to force a burst in market size. This is something impossible to do in smaller regional markets like Stornoway as there simply aren’t enough people.
For some low-cost airlines most of their income now comes from extras such as checked baggage charges, which are included in the fare for every Loganair flight.
Maintenance and bad weather are factors
Industry expert Iain also explained that the age of an aircraft fleet is a factor in driving up costs due to increased maintenance needs. “Any aircraft will fatigue as it ages. The older it gets, the more attention it will need. Just like a car, bits wear out and need to be replaced. Many parts have to be replaced on a time basis as opposed to an age basis, regardless of the age of the aircraft.”
It’s not only capacity and maintenance that Loganair has to battle. When speaking to the airline, I was informed that the nature of the route network also means that the airline encounters more frequent weather disruption. This significantly increases ticket costs for passenger hotel accommodation. They told me, “We arrange extra flights to recover from weather disruption rather than leaving customers to rebook potentially only in several days’ time when seats are next available, as low-cost carriers generally would”. I hadn’t considered this when I first sat down to explore this topic but again, it makes sense.
A year-round network is needed to serve communities
Loganair bills itself as a ‘lifeline and regional connectivity carrier’ meaning they fly year-round:
“We can’t and don’t switch our aircraft between sunshine routes to Alicante in summer and ski routes to Geneva in winter, as we fly the same routes year-round to serve the communities to which we fly.
“This means profits from flights on busy summer Fridays go towards subsiding the provision of a service on a quiet Tuesday in January. As part of our ‘Loves Islands’ campaign, we are helping island communities welcome a sustainable number of tourists and helping to educate tourists to visit responsibly.”
Loganair added they are “committed to providing regional connectivity on a year-round basis, supporting the communities in which we operate and ensuring lifeline links can remain open. We can only do this with fares that cover costs throughout the year. Loganair’s presence across regional communities has a beneficial impact on the economic prosperity of the people who live and work there .and acts as a catalyst for new investment and job creation in places like Shetland, Orkney and the Western Isles”.
So, there we have it. When I sat down to write this, I suspected that the answer to my question was that Loganair had cornered the market and could charge what they wanted to. However, I can admit that my initial suspicion was wrong. I found that the type of aircraft they need to use and the communities they serve require a robust service that operates year-round. You get what you pay for: a lifeline that’s there when you need it.