Council Hikes Airport Fees By 15% Although One Councillor Pushes For 37% Rise

airport runway 2015Councillors have voted to raise landing fees at St Mary’s Airport by 15% next year in a bid to bring the facility back into profit.

But Cllr Robert Dorrien-Smith, who chaired the meeting, described the increase as “unjustified” and said it would damage the islands’ tourist industry.

Councillors were warned that the airport still has a deficit of £51,000 and needs to put away at least £400,000 every year for future replacement of the runway and equipment.

But Cllr Dorrien-Smith, who owns Scilly’s largest tourist business Tresco Estate, said passenger figures, and therefore income, were already better than expected this year.

He said they could generate a surplus even with no changes to the current fees and he disputed the “simplistic” calculations about how much the airport needed to save.

Robert said councillors had the choice “to play safe, put up fees and potentially drive the market down” or “keep the fees as the are and rely on growth, a stronger economy and the activities of the Islands’ Partnership.”

But members of the committee were unsure over what would happen in September, when the Council hands back the lease on the airport to the Duchy.

Infrastructure Officer Craig Dryden said if the Duchy hadn’t found a new operator by that time, the Council would continue running the facility.

But he also admitted that officers had no influence on the choice of operator or how the airport would be run in the future.

Finance officers gave councillors a range of options from no increase in fees up to 37.6%.

Council Vice Chairman Steve Sims proposed going for the highest increase possible although other members of the committee didn’t support that.

The income from landing fees for each passenger at the airport is approximately £11, meaning Cllr Sims’ proposed 37.6% increase would be around £4.14.

He said that’s a “minimal” increase and “essentially the price of a cup of coffee” although Cllr Fraser Hicks asked Steve where he bought his coffee.

“That’s quite expensive,” said Fraser. “I think I’ll drink water.”

Cllr Sims maintained that the increase was small, adding, “it almost certainly won’t get passed onto the passenger and, if it does, it will be part of bigger fare increases that are probably coming up anyway.”

But Cllr Robert Dorrien-Smith felt raising fees by the highest level would be damaging for the islands.

Robert said, “the last man should turn the lights out if we go for 37%. There’ll be nothing left,” adding that it would, “simply drive the market out of existence.”

The sole operator at the airport, Skybus, came in for criticism from some councillors.

Council Chairman Amanda Martin said she would only feel comfortable with a price freeze, “if the operator would also freeze their fares.“

Amanda said, “I don’t believe that is, or would be, the case.”

And while Cllr Marian Bennett said she would, “love to see the lowest possible charge” she added, “at the end of the day it’s the fares that determine the numbers.”

She felt the increase, “won’t have the slightest impact on the fares charged.”

Marian said that Skybus “does not listen” and that the Council were not in control of the situation. “We’re held to ransom over the number of passengers coming,” she added.

Cllr Gaz O’Neill felt councillors were polarised between those who wanted big increases and those wanting minimal rises.

He proposed the “middle ground” of a 15% increase in landing fees.

But even that was too much for Cllr Dorrien-Smith, who said 15% was “unjustifiable.”

Robert said, “It’s going to damage our tourist industry, which is our main industry that keeps these islands alive. It is short sighted, based on false premise and these figures don’t justify it.”

He said costs had risen, “but if we keep piling the costs on here we are simply going to strangle our own market.”

But councillors rejected that argument. Five members voted in favour of a 15% increase while three voted against.

That will now go forward as a recommendation to Full Council next week, although there was confusion amongst some councillors about why that needed to happen.

Cllr Gaz O’Neill pointed out that the rules set for the Transport, Economic Development and Infrastructure Committee clearly stated that it “sets the fees and charges.”

But officers said that wasn’t the case, and Full Council had to give the final sign off for all budgetary decisions.

Last year, the Transport Committee recommended a 5% increase in landing fees and this was doubled to 10% by the Full Council.

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