UNIONS and politicians have voiced renewed concern after Highlands and Islands Airports Limited (HIAL) said it intends to press ahead with plans to do away with air traffic control towers at airports including Sumburgh in favour of a remote digital system.
HIAL said the remote towers and “centralised approach surveillance control programme” would mirror a successful project in Sweden and transform operations at its network of airports.
Shetland News first revealed last April that HIAL was looking to get rid of air traffic control towers at Sumburgh, Dundee, Inverness, Wick, John O’Groats, Kirkwall, Stornoway and Benbecula.
There have been suggestions the new digital system could be sited in Inverness, where HIAL has its headquarters, but the organisation stressed that “no decisions have been made in terms of the location”.
On Monday the HIAL board agreed to the estimated £28 million investment and said it would hold further talks with staff, stakeholder groups and politicians about its implementation.
The airport operator stressed there would be no immediate changes to its existing setup, and a timetable has yet to be approved.
Shetland MSP Tavish Scott said staff “must be told what their future is”, while the consultant’s report to make savings on the airport budget “misses two vital points”.
“Sumburgh is the busiest airport in the HIAL network and now makes money rather than costs money,” he said.
“Secondly, when Liam McArthur and I met HIAL last year they accepted that there had to be a completely fool-proof communication link between a remote centre in Inverness and Sumburgh.
“Where is that guarantee? What is the back-up? What happens if the cameras covering the runway fail so that the controllers sitting in their Inverness bunker cannot see the runway or the main road that crosses it? There are many questions for HIAL to answer on safety above all else.”
Scott was echoed by the Scottish Greens' Highlands and Islands list MSP John Finnie, who said HIAL "must ensure that any changes to the current model prioritise the safe operation of its airports."
He is meeting HIAL on Thursday and intends to speak in more detail after that, but told Shetland News he had not “heard anything to change my mind” and the proposal “looks like exactly what I expected”.
HIAL managing director Inglis Lyon said the decision was a significant one and its “overriding priority is and will always be to deliver safe and secure air navigation services that will keep our airports open for local communities for the long term”.
Lyon said the board had already involved air traffic control staff and other stakeholders in a full review of its air traffic management operations – conducted by aviation consultancy Helios – prior to taking Monday’s decision.
“Given the nature and location of our business and airports, we are already managing a number of challenges,” he continued. “These include staff recruitment and retention, increasing regulation, and increasing pressure on costs.
“Our role is to ensure that the airport network benefits from investment in its long term future, secured through new technology.”
But Prospect aviation officer in Scotland David Avery said: “Any centralised monitoring system will be dependent on a reliable, resilient and secure communications infrastructure between the mainland and the island[s] which simply does not exist.
“HIAL are gambling on this, and Prospect believes this is gambling with people’s safety. Air traffic control provides high quality skilled, highly paid employment in the islands with many controllers recruited and trained locally.
“Centralisation will remove these roles from the islands. We do not believe the report has given sufficient weight to these considerations and HIAL roles as an employer in the Highlands and Islands.”
HIAL employs well over 50 air traffic control staff, and Avery said the union would “engage with HIAL to consider the potential impact of any change on staff and protect members’ jobs”.
“As a union we understand that HIAL has a significant challenge in recruiting and retraining controllers, but we see nothing in this report which we believe will address the cause of the issue, which is much more related to pay and conditions.”