Loganair has gone from being a relatively obscure Scottish outfit to the UK’s biggest regional airline. CEO Jonathan Hinkles tells Tara Craig how
Speaking from Loganair HQ, a five-minute walk from the terminal at Glasgow Airport, Jonathan Hinkles presents a relaxed front. It’s not until the end of our interview that he mentions needing to urgently review a statement on the air traffic control strike action about to hit several key airports.
This calmness and a clear enjoyment of his work have stood Hinkles – and the airline – in good stead in the rocky months since COVID-19 arrived in the UK in March 2020. Despite a sudden fall in passenger numbers, Loganair, he explains, continued to fly right the way through the pandemic – one of the few airlines to do so. Indeed, at one point, it was among the busiest in Europe.
Loganair’s routes are among the keys to its success – it is an enormously important part of the Scottish Highlands and Islands transport infrastructure, serving not only the local communities but the busy North Sea oil and gas sector.
Throughout the pandemic, the airline has delivered lifeline services across the region. In non-pandemic times, less than 5% of its routes are government subsidised but the impact of COVID caused the Scottish government to step in to underpin some of the more important passenger services, including those serving Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles.
“That support from the Scottish government enabled services like NHS hospital patient travel to continue,” Hinkles explained. “We took on additional roles, too: learning special procedures for moving radiotherapy shots from Inverness out to the Western Isles Hospital, keeping newspapers on the move, transporting mail – a whole range of things.”
And, of course, as passenger numbers dropped, Loganair saw a huge increase in the number of freight parcels being moved. The sudden enthusiasm for online shopping manifested itself in a huge increase in the payload of the airline’s freight mail services.
Loganair also maintained its regular flights to Barra, Tiree and Campbeltown throughout the pandemic, “to ensure that basic connectivity remained in place to the islands at a time when it wasn't economically practical to provide it on a normal commercial basis,” said Hinkles.
He describes serving communities such as Tiree as “a kind of social responsibility that has been ingrained in the company for a great many years.”
“The other thing that we've done over the course of the last year is that we converted a Saab 340 aircraft into an air ambulance, to provide additional support to the Scottish Ambulance Service. That's something we hadn't done before. It took us about two weeks from beginning to end, to design, implement and approve it and have the aircraft ready for service.
“This was one of the few means of flying COVID-19 patients from the islands. Having that capability provided a huge level of reassurance to the island communities,” he added.
North Ronaldsay is the northernmost of Orkney’s islands, with a much reduced ferry service in the winter. Every Tuesday from October to May, Loganair takes the seats out of an Islander and fills it with food for the island’s shops. The Twin Otters were put to similar use last Christmas, when poor weather disrupted ferry crossings.
Loganair’s commitment is not solely to remote destinations, however. The airline retained a couple of commercial routes through the pandemic – Aberdeen to Manchester, and Aberdeen to Norwich. According to Hinkles, there was no interruption to either of the routes, which are essential to those working in the oil and gas sector. Loganair also flies dedicated flights for five or six regular customers in the sector.
A business first and foremost
Hinkles stresses that, social responsibility notwithstanding, Loganair is a business and that its survival depends on profitability.
“Sometimes that is a bone of contention in terms of being a business that has to make a profit to provide lifeline services. I was very encouraged by the MP for Orkney and Shetland, Alistair Carmichael, describing Loganair as “an example of what corporate social responsibility actually means”.
As it heads into the last quarter of 2021, Loganair passenger numbers are encouragingly close to pre-pandemic levels. “We have seen some benefit from more people travelling domestically, but that has not been anything like sufficient to offset the number of international travellers that we normally have coming into Scotland, or people from Scotland travelling internationally,” Hinkles added.
Asked about Loganair’s passenger demographic, Hinkles says that variations between routes make it impossible to define. What has struck him, however, is the span of the airline’s network. Looking back on a recent trip, he reflected that “within a matter of hours, you're going from a 50-seat jet operating in and out of Heathrow, the UK's largest airport, to flying on an Islander into Sanday Airport, one of the UK's smallest. And we cover all of that.
“It's actually quite humbling, when you look at the span of what this business provides to so many different people across so many different travel requirements. It certainly makes for an interesting yet challenging time of it from our perspective, given the disparate nature of the operation.”
Hinkles believes Loganair, which he describes as “big enough to cope, but small enough to care”, learnt a great deal during the pandemic – not least agility and speed of movement. “The team's ability to get things done very rapidly has been integral, whether that be converting aircraft into air ambulances, or responding to a Royal Mail call for additional flights at very short notice,” he added.
Loganair, for instance, was the first UK airline to mandate wearing face coverings on its aircraft, something Hinkles admits happened “by default rather than from a scientific position.
“If you remember, very early on in the pandemic, there was social media footage of another airline flying between Belfast and London. It was an absolutely jam-packed flight with no face masks – nothing. And we looked at this and realised that it could have been us.
“We had already ordered 50,000 face masks from China and by the afternoon of this incident we were sitting around the boardroom table putting together individual packs of hand sanitiser and face coverings for every Loganair customer,” he explained.
During the first lockdown, this speed of movement was put to even more dramatic use. It looked as if the main terminal at Glasgow was to close, jeopardising the Tiree, Barra and Campbeltown services.
Loganair’s engineers reconfigured a hangar, so that its offices could operate as a small passenger terminal, complete with an electronic check-in desk and baggage scales. A secure walkway was created around the hangar to the apron.
“That was all done in under a week,” said Hinkles. “We didn’t need it in the end but we were still able to offer that certainty to people dependent on us. It’s almost second nature now.”
Not all about COVID
Aviation’s impact on the environment may have been knocked off the front page by COVID, but already, Hinkles said, it has returned “with a vengeance”.
He considers it “probably the biggest single question that the industry will have to address over the coming years”, adding that “the focus on it from a consumer perspective is strong”. From a political perspective, however, Hinkles sees a lack of balance between cutting down on flying and the industry becoming carbon neutral through technological developments.
Loganair used some of the pandemic-driven downtime to reconsider its environmental impact. The result is the Green Skies environmental programme, which will see the airline become carbon neutral by 2040. Hinkles is enthusiastic about the potential to use electric- and hydrogen-powered aircraft on regional routes – Loganair was recently involved in Scotland’s first flight trials of Ampaire’s Electric EEL technology demonstrator, a modified six-seat Cessna 337 – but he admits that it is simply not a case of setting the drive for carbon neutrality to one side until this and similar technologies are ready to operate commercially.
In the meantime, Loganair has taken a very different step: “At the beginning of July, we launched a programme of carbon offsets for every customer. We've added £1 to the price of every Loganair ticket as a carbon offset charge.” Hinkles explained. “This is an important step for us. It also [enables] corporate travellers to be very clear about the choices they're making as to which airlines they're flying with.
“A few airlines are burying their heads in the sand and hoping this will go away. This is not an option for us as a business. We have to take a proactive lead on it and we will be offsetting until the technology is available for us to be carbon neutral across the whole of our operation.”
Hinkles acknowledges that remaining operational throughout the pandemic has been beneficial. “It has given us a head start in recovery terms, because we're not dealing with the issues that many of our fellow airlines are facing right now – like trying to get pilots who haven't flown for over a year back into the seat,” he explained.
Loganair continues to look towards the future, with a focus on domestic flights. “We know what works for us and what doesn't, and [we] try to stay within those boundaries,” explained Hinkles. “I certainly don't see us going off on a big expansion spree internationally.”
The Summer 2022 timetable, which Loganair described as cautiously optimistic, features a new route between Teesside and Dublin and a new weekly one-stop, same-plane service linking Cornwall Airport Newquay with Inverness. Several timetables have been expanded and some routes will benefit from larger aircraft.
As passenger numbers pick up, Loganair is not only adding capacity back into the fleet but simultaneously undertaking a renewal programme. The mainstay of the fleet has long been the 34-seat Saab 340 but the airline, explains Hinkles, is in the process of retiring these and replacing them with ATRs. All Saabs are expected to be replaced by mid 2023.
Looking ahead, Hinkles may be keen to stay within those boundaries, but he is also acutely aware of the opportunities on Loganair’s doorstep – not least, he says, possible expansion in the freight market.
“We're always keeping an eye on what's going on in the world around us – what potential competitors will be doing, or not doing,” he concluded.
Loganair: fast facts
• The airline was originally based in Renfrew, with a single Piper Aztec
• It started delivering newspapers to Stornoway in 1964, carrying Harris Tweed on return flights
• In 1976, the airline flew Shetland ponies to Fair Isle – the breed had been absent from the island for 80 years
• Loganair’s tartan is registered as No. 11744 in the Scottish Register of Tartans