Suspension of Highland – Heathrow air link 'extremely disappointing' as drop in demand cited by British Airways
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British Airways' decision to suspend its Inverness-Heathrow service until February has been labelled extremely disappointing by business leaders.
However, confidence remains high that the route between the Highland capital and the world's third busiest airport will be restored to its previous popularity.
BA took the decision to suspend flights in the face of severely reduced demand as the Omicron variant of Covid-19 continues to be a threat and the public is encouraged to work from home rather than commute.
Bookings have been closed until February 28, and BA has contacted any customers who have been disrupted to offer them refund vouchers, which are valid up to the end of September 2023, or transfer flights to another service, such as Aberdeen-Heathrow.
A BA spokesman said: "Like other airlines, due to the continuing coronavirus pandemic we are operating a reduced and dynamic schedule.
"We apologise to customers whose travel plans are disrupted. Where a customer's flight is cancelled, we always contact them to offer options including a full refund. Customers who are unable to travel, or choose not to, can also continue to change their flights or request a voucher for future use as part of our Book with Confidence policy, which has been available since the beginning of the pandemic. Full details of our policy can be found at www.ba.com/confidence"
Inverness airport general manager Graeme Bell, said: “While we are disappointed that the Inverness-Heathrow service has been temporarily suspended, we appreciate that the aviation sector as a whole is once more facing an extremely challenging period.
“This route provides a direct link between the Highland capital and one of the world’s leading aviation hubs. We hope that the recent easing of travel restrictions will allow people to plan their travel with more confidence and look forward to welcoming a full schedule of flights when the service is reintroduced.”
Inglis Lyon, chief executive of Inverness Airport parent company Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd (HIAL), described retaining the link between Inverness and Heathrow as its biggest current challenge.
“That is an essential piece of business for the Highlands to retain, especially as we were successful in attracting it," he said.
"These things hang by a thread when the industry is under pressure in terms of aircraft availability, profitability and eye-watering losses over the last two years."
Stewart Nicol, chief executive of Inverness Chamber of Commerce, also described the news as extremely disappointing, especially given how hard the business community had fought to restore the route.
"People are choosing to work from home rather than going to an office or travelling to meet people, so it's completely understandable why BA have done this," he said.
"Not having the service will dent business and traffic to the city and the Highlands, but I am confident that going forward we will be in a much better place.
"It was known that it was BA's best performing domestic route, so I am really hopeful that when trade and international tourism recover, we will see the route not only back, but performing really well as we grow our international business and connect globally because it is such a massively important and profitable route, so in the longer-term I am extremely optimistic."
Economist Tony Mackay shared Mr Nicol's disappointment, adding: "I don’t think that a short-term suspension will have a significant negative impact but there must be a concern that it could lead to a longer term cutback.
"The Inverness-Heathrow service is important for business people, well off tourists and politicians. A longer term cutback would certainly make the Highlands less attractive to inward investors.