The government should consider setting up a franchise-based airline so that it can buy landing slots and protect key services.
That’s one of the recommendations of a Tynwald scrutiny committee investigation in the open skies policy.
In its report, to be presented to next week’s Tynwald sitting, the Economic Policy Review Committee concludes that open skies - that allow airlines free access to fly routes to and from Ronaldsway – remains in the best interest of the island despite a rapid decline in the number of available operators.
Questions about whether regulation was needed to protect lifeline air routes have been raised after budget airline EasyJet launched a new service to Liverpool and then Gatwick in competition with Flybe.
Flybe subsequently announced it was pulling out of Gatwick from next year – but insisted its decision to sell its slots there to rival EasyJet was due to a hike in landing fees by the operators of the London airport.
In its report the Tynwald committee accepted that the question of whether the island had open skies or introduced licensing was really academic as the government has no control over policies pursued by off-island airports.
But while it recommends no immediate change to the current open skies policy, it does suggest a contingency plan is prepared for a licensing regime, whether ‘light touch’ or otherwise.
It says consideration should be given to amending the charging system at Ronaldsway to allow competition to continue, but to safeguard particular routes and flight timings.
But controversially, it also recommends that government investigate the possibility of setting up a franchise-based airline which could be operated by companies using leased aircraft which would allow the government to buy landing slots, if any suitable ones came up for sale.
It is not possible to buy slots in chosen airports, unless you are an airline. The States of Guernsey owns its own airline Aurigny which enables it to own slots of Gatwick. Aurigny announced expansion plans in the summer.
The committee says of its idea for a government-owned airline: ‘We realise that this may have significant practical objections, but think that all options should be considered in the effort to create as much stability in the provision of services as possible.’
In its evidence, the Department of Infrastructure had claimed there was no evidence that low fares competition had had a detrimental effect upon the provision of air services on key routes.
But passenger watchdog TravelWatch said the arrival of easyJet had hit both existing air and sea services.
The committee said the timing of flights and their destinations needed to be incentivised.
Niall Duffy, head of PR and public affairs at Flybe, said: ‘Flybe congratulates the committee for a thorough and detailed report and its conclusion that there should not be any immediate change to the open skies policy.
‘In our evidence, we stressed the importance of a structure that retains the integrity of the Open Skies policy but maintains the island’s crucial high-frequency lifeline routes. To that end, Flybe welcomes the committee’s recommendation that Ronaldsway’s charging regime be used to safeguard the position of routes and their timings.’
TravelWatch, the pressure group, remains critical of the open skies policy.