A special easyJet aircraft with tartan livery took flight this morning to mark new air services connecting Inverness with London.
Crew and officials also donned a mostly orange tartan, thought to be the first to be registered to an airline.
The 156-seat Airbus A319 aircraft has been named ‘Inverness’ and will operate on easyJet routes across Europe to help promote the Highlands as a tourism destination.
It was easyJet’s first flight on new services, which include early morning and evening services linking the Highland capital and Gatwick.
The weekday services were previously operated by Flybe and are widely viewed as vital to the north economy due to the lack of any other high-speed link connecting the cities.
Last year Flybe sold its 25 pairs of runway slots at Gatwick to easyJet for £20 million. It prompted business leaders, politicians and the wider community to unify efforts to keep the north connected to London, with campaigns showing easyJet there was an appetite for the early morning and evening flights to be retained.
The landing and departure times at Gatwick could have been used by easyJet – which currently operates flights linking Inverness to Gatwick and Luton – for other flights. But easyJet moved swiftly to end any uncertainty when it announced plans to enhance connections between Inverness and London as part of a new five-year deal.
The deal, which followed robust discussions among easyJet officials, came after a commercial decision was reached with Inverness Airport’s operator, Highlands and Islands Airports Limited (HIAL), supported by the Scottish Government. It included ensuring infrastructure at the airport was able to house a larger plane overnight. There is no government subsidy involved.
"Today we are here to celebrate the long term future of flights between the Scottish Highlands and London," said Ali Gayward, easyJet’s Head of Scotland.
"We know the addition of this early morning departure is crucial for businesses in the Highlands and will be very much in demand with almost 200,000 passengers expected to use this flight each year.
"The new schedule from Inverness to Gatwick will offer a day return for business travellers and easy, affordable fares to help boost tourism. It will be followed by four new Scottish routes this summer and in recognition of this we are proud to unveil a special edition tartan aircraft."
The new Inverness to Gatwick flights will be followed by four new easyJet routes launching this spring – Herakilon and Bodrum from Edinburgh and Spilt and Kos from Glasgow.
"I’m delighted to see this enhanced service between Inverness and London get off the ground today, maintaining a link that’s important for business and tourism in the Highlands," said transport minister Keith Brown.
"The Scottish Government worked quickly with easyJet and HIAL to ensure the Gatwick link was not only retained, but also offered better times for business travellers. We are keen to support HIAL to continue to grow the number of routes available from Inverness Airport in the future."
More than 300,000 people are expected to fly with easyJet between Inverness and London airports over the coming year.
"By expanding their operations from the Highlands easyJet are helping to support our economy and ensuring that Inverness continues to be a thriving investment hub," said Danny Alexander, MP for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey.
Inglis Lyon, managing director of HIAL, said: "EasyJet’s success over the past decade has been instrumental in supporting business and tourism growth across the Highlands. The airline has helped revolutionise air travel to and from the Highlands, ensuring that business and leisure travellers are well connected to the UK’s main airports, including Gatwick, and providing access to key markets for businesses across the north of Scotland.
"Inverness Airport’s links to London are hugely important for business and tourism development and we are delighted that easyJet is to increase capacity on the popular Gatwick route. Gatwick is an increasingly important hub airport, serving a growing number of European and long-haul destinations, and providing easy access to the heart of London. The airline has shown a real vote of confidence in the Highlands by expanding services between Inverness and London, and by commissioning a special Highland tartan to mark the occasion, easyJet will help raise the profile of the Highland capital across their network."
Scott Armstrong, VisitScotland regional director, said: "2014 really is an epic year for Scotland, with the Glasgow Commonwealth Games, The Ryder Cup and the second Year of Homecoming, and we are looking forward to giving a warm Highland welcome to even more visitors via this day-return service between Inverness and London Gatwick. Not only will this service help to maintain good connections for visitors to Inverness and the Highlands, but the flights are key to the continued expansion of the region’s business community."