Scotland is home to what must be the world's most unique air service. At least six times each week a De Havilland Twin Otter aircraft leaves Glasgow bound for Barra Airport at the southern tip of the Western Isles, the world's only tidal airport.
From Barra the aircraft then flies north to Benbecula Airport, before returning to Barra, then flying back to Glasgow. There is one flight per day from Monday to Friday throughout the year, plus a second flight on Mondays in July and August, on Thursdays and Fridays in August, and over the Easter weekend.
A unique airport calls for a unique timetable, because the flights are subject to tidal conditions at Barra. As a result there is a morning schedule and an afternoon schedule, which apply on alternate weeks. When booking a flight it is important to know which schedule your flight will be following.
The slight oddity in the timetable relates to Saturdays. Here there are either one or two return flights from Glasgow to Barra depending on the date, and the aircraft does not go on to Benbecula. The oddity relates less to the lack of an onward connection to Benbecula, but rather to the fact that Saturday flights don't seem to have to vary their times to cope with the tides at Barra, as happens during the week.
The weekday timetable means that sightseeing trips from Barra to Benbecula and back are possible. These can be taken on a standby basis (ie you fly if there's a seat available) at a very reasonable price: enquire at the check in desk at Barra Airport. The Twin Otter can seat 19 people, but in practice accommodation is limited by the need to carry the weight of both passengers and fuel, so a few less than this tends to be the limit. Nonetheless, sightseeing tickets are frequently available.
The flight from Barra to Benbecula and back takes just 25 minutes each way, and the aircraft flies at fairly low level to allow you the best view of South Uist as you pass over it. The scenic value of the flight between Glasgow and Barra is more a case of pot luck, depending on the weather and the crew you get.
One captain goes as far as producing an information sheet he distributes to passengers ahead of the flight, then providing a commentary as he flies over some of the most beautiful parts of Scotland at a height low enough to appreciate them. Another crew tends to take a less involved approach, flying much higher and offering minimum engagement with passengers. It has to be said that you get very much better value for the price of your ticket if you are lucky enough to be flown by the first of these crews and not the second.
The highlight of any trip, of course, is the arrival at and/or departure from Barra's unique beach airport. With significant improvements to the Sound of Barra Ferry to Eriskay, there had been a question mark over the future of the Barra air service. It has, however, been confirmed that the service will continue to operate until at least 2009: so there's still time to experience this amazing air service.