BA and KLM’s Highland fling turns into happy Inverness marriage

UK airport operator Highlands & Islands Airports Limited (HIAL) is an excellent example of the essential role hub airport connectivity plays in supporting regional airports and developing economic trade. It controls a plethora of small airports across Northern Scotland, its largest being in Inverness, the most northerly city in the United Kingdom and the main gateway to the highlands region in Northern Scotland.

It may be a city with a population of around 60,000 and set to grow to around 100,000 over the next 20 years, but it remains isolated with limited ground links by road and rail and a struggle to maintain air links. After losing an earlier direct flight to London Heathrow operated by Dan-Air, British Airways and then bmi British Midland subsequently offered links to Europe’s largest international gateway. bmi launched its Heathrow – Inverness route in March 2004 after BA moved its own operation to London Gatwick, but closed it just four years later in March 2008.

For a while the airport had no regular direct link to a major hub airport, although flights to the capital were maintained through low-fare carrier Flybe (London Gatwick) and easyJet (London Gatwick and London Luton) – great for local traffic, but not for transfer passengers.

The airport was able to secure an international link to Amsterdam in September 2011 with Flybe (KLM’s UK division, KLM uk, had previously served the route in 1997 and 1998, while ScotAirways launched a service on September 10, 2001, the day before the 911 terrorist atrocities, but suspended services just three weeks later due to an immediate decline in passenger demand) and this has proved the stepping stone to boosting trade and access in and out of Northern Scotland and delivering what appears to be sustainable international connectivity.

We are now one year on from a milestone month for Inverness Airport as new daily services from British Airways (BA) and KLM Royal Dutch Airlines serving their London Heathrow and Amsterdam Schiphol hubs have brought enhanced global connectivity to Scotland’s Highland gateway. The two routes took to the air in late May 2016 (the KLM service replacing Flybe’s operation to Amsterdam) and both routes are already proving successful, not just with O&D demand but providing true connectivity from other points across Europe and as far afield as North America and Asia.

The arrival of BA and KLM “has been transformational for the airport,” according to Inglis Lyon, managing director of airport operator HIAL, and there is real evidence that the BA and KLM routes are not only playing a vital role for the Highlands’ economic development but are also playing a significant part in helping to ensure that Inverness and the Highlands stay very much on the tourism and business map.

According to data from the UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), BA carried over 67,000 two-way passengers between the Inverness and London Heathrow during its first ten months of operation (May 2016 to February 2017), an average of 110 passengers per day (PPDEW) on the Airbus A319. At its peak demand in July 2016 that raised to a high of 138 PPDEW.

“Two-thirds of the passengers who have used the BA service are inbound, with visitors connecting from the USA and Europe, which is good news for the city and the region,” said Mr Lyon. As previously reported by CAPA, the Scottish government plans to abolish the UK wide Air Passenger Duty to promote growth in air travel and tourism and further support air connections.

A more detailed breakdown of London Heathrow – Inverness two-way data using OAG Traffic Analyser shows that just 19,530 passengers during the analysis period, or just under 30% of passengers on the route, are deemed local traffic.

Meanwhile, KLM carried just over 40,000 two-way passengers between the Inverness and Amsterdam during the corresponding period, around 66 PPDEW on the Embraer 175 allocated to the market. This peaked at 89 PPDEW in October 2016. Higher than the BA hub connection, local traffic during the first two full months of KLM operation accounted for around half of two-way demand.

The success of the route has seen KLM now introduce a second daily rotation for the summer season.  The additional flight will operate from May 15, 2017 through to October 28, 2017 as a late evening departure from Amsterdam and an early morning departure from Inverness following a nigh-stop in the Highland city. This will open up additional flight connection options in each direction.

The Highlands and Islands make up half of Scotland’s land mass of 15,000 square miles and are home to a tenth of the country’s population. Regular, hassle-free access to the world from airports like Inverness is vitally important to the increasingly young and entrepreneurial population who live and work there. Half of inhabitants are under 44 and the region is home to 21,000 businesses, according to Highlands and Islands Enterprise.

“It is clear that Inverness is reaping the rewards of the recently-restored link to London Heathrow and the new KLM Amsterdam link,” explained Mr Lyon and both routes have survived potential seasonal cuts. Although Inverness does enjoy strong year-round demand and suffers limited seasonal demand shifts, the winter period remains key to the long-term success of both routes, with BA and KLM potentially seeking to reallocate lucrative hub airport slots at the constrained airports if demand slips.