Wales air link is good value say Welsh Assembly Government

7.5.2008   (Wales – Western Mail)

Rhodri Clark

Taxpayers have paid more than £80 in subsidy for every passenger who used the
new air link between Anglesey and the Vale of Glamorgan in its first year.

The subsidy is double the average fare on the service.

Environmentalists branded the subsidy "excessive", but supporters said the flights
were good value because they narrowed Wales’ north-south divide.

News of the air subsidy comes a month after the Western Mail revealed a new bus
link between Newport and Rogerstone rail stations was receiving £123 subsidy per
passenger. That journey was just three miles long, while the air service covers
around 200 miles.

The two return flights per weekday service between RAF Valley and Cardiff airport
was launched on May 8 last year. By the end of April, they had notched up 14,133
passenger journeys, with just one in five seats unoccupied.

Flight operator Highland Airways receives £800,000 a year from the Welsh Assembly
Government, which also gives Anglesey council £400,000 for the cost of running
Maes Awyr Môn, the civilian terminal at Valley.

The subsidy works out at around £84 for each passenger who travelled in the service’s
first year.   Fares range from £20 to £50 one way, and the average paid in the
first year was £42.

Gordon James, of Friends of the Earth Cymru, said: "The subsidy per passenger
is excessive. If the service has succeeded, they should slash the subsidy.   It’s
sending out the wrong message.   We want to see subsidy going to the north-south
rail service, where improvements are needed."

Arriva Trains Wales receives far more subsidy – around £145m a year – but carries
some 23 million passengers a year. Its subsidy is around £6.30 per passenger journey
or 26p per passenger mile.

While ATW’s Holyhead-Wrexham-Cardiff service may not need much subsidy, ATW also
operates loss-making trains at quiet times of the week and in sparsely populated
areas. Some additional subsidy is paid to Network Rail for infrastructure maintenance

Mr James added: "If the subsidy is £80 for air passengers and £6.30 for rail
passengers, the balance is wrong. It’s often the better-off who will fly, and
they get a high subsidy from the taxpayer. Poorer people will go by train or bus,
with less of a subsidy per passenger."

Colin Munro, of Highland Airways, said the air subsidy was "fantastic value".

"The subsidy that goes into road, rail or buses is huge by comparison with what
goes into this air service, which is securing the social and economic development
of Anglesey for the future. We’ve got some people flying from Anglesey who are
making their first visit to Cardiff. Things like that are changing people’s lives
in a really positive way."

He said the subsidy could reduce if Highland Airways received more income from
fares in the next two years. The £800,000 figure is a maximum annual subsidy based
on the company’s original estimates of income.

Staff at Cardiff-based legal firm Hugh James have used the service to meet clients
in North Wales.

"It’s a fantastic service from our point of view because we can do almost a full
day’s work and catch the plane back in late afternoon," said David Roberts, who
heads the property construction division.

He said businesses would be prepared to pay more than the £50 maximum fare, because
of the time it saved.

"The fare is extremely attractive. One of the biggest problems is trying to get
on the thing now, because it’s so successful."

A WAG spokesman said: "We are satisfied the £2.4m of investment over three years
represents good value. The demand reflects the need for this connection, an important
development that is serving the business and leisure markets in Wales.

"Efficient, convenient transport networks within Wales are vital to stimulate
enterprise and support economic growth. The air link has been established for
an initial three-year period and we will carry out a full evaluation of the first
12 months of the service. This will provide the evidence base for future options.
It is too soon to say if the funding will be reduced when the next contract is
awarded in 2010."

Western Mail – Wales

Wales air link is good value say WAG