Then BA offloaded everything to Loganair, and sold the right to paint the aeroplanes to something called FlyBe. Saabs, which always made me feel secure. Comforted. I liked Saabs. Reliable cars, heavy, solid, Swedish. Of course aeroplanes need somewhat different qualities from earthbound vehicles. The ability to take off being the most obvious. And land. Safely.
Loganair, on behalf of Flybe , who take the money, operate 13 Saab 340Bs, (34 leather seats, worn and rattly nowadays) and four stretch Saabs, called 2000s, seating 50. No booze, free or otherwise. bad coffee and a Tunnocks Caramel Wafer. They are not bad aircraft. Their worldwide crash record is good. But they’re old and unreliable (even Saabs wear out) and, in the challenging (!) conditions of the Shetland run (Aberdeen to Shetland is 163 nautical miles, and should take 51 minutes), they are plainly past it.
Don’t just take my word for it. In October the pilots union BALPA complained in writing to Loganair that broken aircraft were “being returned to the line despite being unserviceable” and in some cases “aircraft retain defects that clearly affect flight safety”. BALPA subsequently stressed that their pilots would never fly an “unsafe” plane, and Loganair stated that “the safety of our crews and passengers is and always will be our number one priority”.
But the ‘tech’ delays have continued, public unrest in Shetland has grown and then last night, the Wednesday before Christmas, in nasty weather, a full emergency was declared at Sumburgh when a fully-loaded Saab landed on one engine. A warning light, so far, is all we know.
How do you think it feels to be on a flight which declares a full emergency? To land in the brace position, in gusty winds, in the dark? Again? Old? With a heart condition, an ill baby, just out of hospital after an operation? To wonder if you or your loved ones will get home for Christmas? To live in a community utterly dependent on this lifeline service, and be treated, apparently with contempt not just by the private companies who seem worse-than-indifferent to the people they serve, but by the Scottish Government, which provides heavy subsidies, and the UK Government, which has authority over air safety via the Civil Aviation Authority?
I have a dozen close family members coming to Shetland over Christmas and New Year, and some of them have never been here before, never flown in anything smaller than an Easyjet Orange Charabanc, certainly nothing with propellers, something that looks like a prop from Casablanca. I want to say to them, look, trust the pilots: they won’t fly unless it’s safe. But why should we be put in this position by Loganair’s reliance on a fleet of aircraft that should have been replaced years ago? If, with take-the-money-and-paint-our-logo-on FlyBeNight, they’re refusing to invest in new hardware, how can we be sure their investment in maintenance and repair is beyond reproach?
Me, I prefer to travel by boat. Not that NorthLink, now run by Serco are above criticism. Their flat-bottomed ferries are not really suitable for the 200-mile, 12-14 hour Aberdeen-Shetland run (officially the longest and most dangerous ocean crossing in UK waters). It can be rough. As the joke goes, on FlyBe you think you’re going to die; on SercoLink you wish you were dead. Bad weather and, yes, technical problems over the festivities have seen sailings disrupted. But I always take comfort in the fact that boats sink relatively slowly. There are lifeboats.
As far as I know, those much-vaunted lifejackets under your seats on aeroplanes have never saved a single life. But good engineering, properly maintained, most certainly has. People here in Shetland have lost confidence that Loganair and Flybe are supplying that good technology and proper maintenance.
They are playing fast and loose with our lives. We are absolutely sick of it. And we are frightened.