Isles of Scilly helicopter axing provokes economic fears

Image caption The government is under pressure to introduce subsidies to travel from the islands to the mainland

Regular helicopter flights between the Isles of Scilly and Penzance have come to an end amid islanders' fears of economic decline as a result.

"A stunning journey to an island paradise" is how the helicopter trip to the Isles of Scilly is promoted by operators British International Helicopters.

The daily clatter of the rotor blades to the main island of St Mary's has been a feature of travel to the islands for more than 48 years.

The Scillonian III passenger ferry runs for seven months a year and there is the daily Skybus plane service from Land's End, Newquay and Exeter.

But residents of the "island paradise" say the helicopter will be badly missed.

Newsagent Clive Mumford said: "The helicopter was convenient, very fast and very efficient.

"Now it's back to the old order of flying to Land's End and getting a bus to Penzance.

"I am sure Skybus will do a good job, but we have concerns."

The helicopter service has run to the main island of St Mary's about nine times a day, supporting tourism - the island's main industry - and carrying post, newspapers, medical supplies and exports of cut flowers.

The helicopter carried about 90,000 people last year, about a third of the total passenger traffic to the islands.

Since 2000, the service has been operated by British International Helicopters (BIH) but it said in August it had "no alternative" but to end it.

It cited falling passengers numbers, rising costs and a costly six month legal wrangle over a move, now dropped, from Penzance to nearby St Erth.

Islander Shirley Whitaker, who uses the helicopter every month to fly for treatment at West Cornwall Hospital, has limited movement and says she finds it difficult to get on and off the aeroplane.

"Anyone like me is really apprehensive," she said.

Mrs Whitaker said she had even been advised by her doctor to move to the mainland.

"I don't see why we should even think about moving because there should be a boat that comes year round at least," she said.

"We always thought someone would come in at the last minute. I thought Prince Charles would intervene."

Firms 'precarious'

Earlier this month, Lord Cameron of Dillington, an independent cross-bencher, told the House of Lords the end of the helicopter link meant running a business on the islands was a "pretty precarious enterprise."

Transport minister Norman Baker said the government did not want to interfere yet "because we want to see whether there will be a commercial solution to the problem".

The Isles of Scilly Steamship Company which operates both the Skybus planes and Scillonian III ferry service, is planning more flights and is buying another 19-seat aircraft to add to the six Skybus planes it currently runs to St Mary's.

The company also said it was planning to increase the size of its air passenger terminal at Land's End, and that a new control tower would make flights less weather-dependent.

Thick fog also affects planes more than helicopters which can land more slowly.

The Council of the Isles of Scilly is also planning to improve the harbour on St Mary's for a bigger and better ferry after the 35-year-old Scillonian III is retired in 2018.

Emergencies will be answered by Royal Navy air sea rescue crews and the Cornwall air ambulance.

But Marian Bennett, who campaigns for transport services to the islands, said there was a "gross injustice" between Scilly and the Scottish islands, to which travel is subsidised.

"You will always have very wealthy people to whom the islands, regardless of transport services, will be an attractive option," she said.

"But do we want the community to be replaced by second-home owners, wealthy people who really do not care particularly for working people, children, the hospital - all the things that truly make up the community of the Isles of Scilly?"

Clothes shop owner Terry Ward said visitor numbers had been falling for several years.

"It's not like the good old days," he said.

"And I think it's fairly clear with the helicopter service ending that there will be fewer people next year."

Mark Prebble, who runs St Mary's Bike Hire, said: "Losing one of the service is a loss, but I still think it's a good place to visit."

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