Community Leaders React To Loss Of Helicopter Service

Community and business leaders on the Isles of Scilly have been reacting to the news that British International Helicopters is to close its routes to the St Mary’s and Tresco from November.

Chair of the Council’s Transport Committee, Dudley Mumford, said this was “a hell of a blow to the islands.”

He said the helicopters had been a lifeline link and it leaves a huge gap in our transport infrastructure.

He said his thoughts are also with the staff at Penzance and in Scilly.

Dudley said they’d need to let the dust settle, but he hopes BIH could reconsider their decision or another operator might step in.

Councillor Marian Bennett has been working hard to get Government subsidy for the routes to Scilly by raising awareness of the so-called Scottish Report.

She says the loss of the helicopters strengthens the case for Government support and a year-round ship to back up the fixed wing aircraft.

Marian added that having just one operator now makes us “even more vulnerable.”

Council Chairman Mike Hicks says the closure of the route brings a devastating blow. Mike wants to meet with the BIH management soon to see whether there are any future options that can be pursued.

He says the Council had done what it could to help and has tried to keep an open dialogue.

Mike used to be the chairman of the Steamship Company. He recently asked the company whether they’d need more planes to cope should the helicopter service end but he says they feel their current fleet was sufficient.

But Mike says, personally, he thinks they should look at getting another Twin Otter aircraft to service the routes they run.

Council Director of Finance, Peter Lawrence, says the Council had no warning of this decision.

He says he’s pleased that BIH has given some notice and that they haven’t pulled out mid-season. The Council is one of the biggest helicopter users and the Council will need to talk with Skybus.

Peter says the Council has to look at all sorts of ideas for the future but adds running its own air service could be too costly.

Peter says the accounting systems he has brought in mean that he’s on top of the company’s outstanding payments and he’s not concerned by amounts owed.

But Councillor Gordon Bilsborough wants assurances. He says it is absolutely essential that BIH’s outstanding airport landing charges are cleared. And he adds that Council taxpayers cannot be held responsible for picking up the tab for any unpaid debts incurred by BIH.

He intends to press the Council to ensure that the company either pays up promptly or is denied the use of the airport.

MP Andrew George says the news is devastating and that he has been powerless to do anything because this is a commercial decision.

He thinks there is now more of an argument for winter sailings, the all year-round boat idea promoted by the Route Partnership and an idea that Marian Bennett backs.

Andrew says the Steamship Company may now be encouraged to revisit its vessel options review to look at winter operations.

He says he has spoken to a number of people with experience in running the Penzance and other helicopter services but says there is a view that the economics of a passenger helicopter service are “hard to stack up these days” but he’s continuing talks.

And Andrew doesn’t think a single monopoly operator is healthy.

Most businesses with whom we spoke feel the closure of the helicopter service is sad, and could create capacity problems for Skybus, but, like many locals, manager of St Mary’s Hall Hotel, Joan Shiles, says it wasn’t too much of a surprise. She expected them to pull out at the end of the year but says she hopes another operator will take up the route.

Joan says she’s seen many of her guests switching to Skybus due to excess charges on baggage. She thinks the helicopter has gone from a premium service to a second-rate substitute.

St Martin’s Hotel Manager Keith Bradford says the loss of the service will make a difference. He thinks there is a need for the three carriers and reducing this will not help the tourism business in Scilly. He echoed Joan’s comments in saying that more guests seem to be using Skybus recently.

Gill Dan of Isles of Scilly Inclusive Holidays says the news will be ‘massive blow’ to her clients who stay at the 55 properties she represents and it isn’t good news for Scilly. Around 50% of her guests used to come on the chopper but Skybus has picked up business recently.

Chris Jones of the Bell Rock Hotel feels the only sensible plan would be to extend the runway so larger planes like Dash 8s can be accommodated.

Duchy Land Steward, Chris Gregory, who is chairman of the Tourism and Business Partnership says he is sure that the remaining operator will provide the capacity and certainty that our tourism industry will need for the 2013 season.

But he says the loss of the BIH route “is a blow” and marks the end of an extraordinary service that has been enjoyed and valued by residents and visitors alike.

In a statement sent late last night, the Isles Of Scilly Steamship Company said, in the absence of another operator, their focus now must be to work with the community to compensate for this loss of service.

They added that they routinely consider changes to the business and although they were not anticipating the end of the helicopters, they are confident they can respond by looking at scheduling and how they deploy their air and sea resources.

Some people have already turned to the internet to find a solution. Last night Penzance residents started a twitter campaign to encourage Virgin boss, Richard Branson, to step in and run the helicopter route.

Tresco Estate is issuing a statement on how the plans will affect their visitors later today.


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