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Inverness picked as location for air traffic control centre

The Sumburgh Airport control tower.

HIGHLANDS and Islands Airports Ltd (HIAL) has selected Inverness as the preferred centre for its proposed new air traffic control system.

Shetland MSP Tavish Scott said the decision came as no surprise and added that questions remain over the viability of Sumburgh Airport’s air traffic control being managed by staff on the mainland.

It was revealed last year that HIAL is looking to do away with air traffic control towers across its network of airports in favour of a remote digital system.

The company wants to remove towers at Sumburgh, Dundee, Inverness, Wick John O’Groats, Kirkwall, Stornoway and Benbecula as part of an estimated £28 million investment.

A report by consultants Ekos said Inverness was the most attractive option for the centralised air traffic base in terms of minimising disruption, as it already has 26 air traffic control staff.

The other locations in consideration were Sumburgh, Benbecula, Dundee, Kirkwall, Stornoway and Wick.

It is thought there would be recruitment challenges for the other proposed bases, with staff revealing that they would be unlikely to relocate to the likes of the islands.

The HIAL board has committed to undertaking a communities impact assessment on the plans.

The capital expenditure cost of basing operations in Inverness is estimated at £6.24 million, while the cost for Sumburgh would be nearly £8 million.

HIAL said cameras would offer air traffic controllers panoramic views of the airfield showing more detail than is possible with the human eye.

Nine air traffic controllers are currently employed at Sumburgh Airport and south end councillor George Smith has raised concerns over the loss of jobs in the area, adding that he is “still to be informed of what actual benefits there are to Sumburgh Airport and its users other than no doubt the long term viability of HIAL”.

HIAL managing director Inglis Lyon said: “The scoping study identifies Inverness as having the most compelling case to support HIAL’s continued delivery of its core activities.

“We have also taken the views of our staff into account and Inverness was their preferred option should relocation be required.

“Inverness is best suited from a technical, operational and staffing perspective. Inverness is centrally located in relation to the other HIAL airports and has direct flights to Sumburgh, Kirkwall, Stornoway and Benbecula. It has road and rail connections with Dundee and Wick.”

Scott said he still wants answers over the viability of remote air traffic control covering airports like Sumburgh in terms of reliability of connection.

“There is no surprise what so ever that HIAL have chosen to centralise air traffic management in Inverness,” he said.

“But they have yet to answer the legitimate questions raised in Shetland over how secure Sumburgh will be when planes landing and departing, are managed by Inverness.

“I cannot see how the regulator – the CAA – can approve a safety case where the resilience of the telecommunications links cannot be guaranteed.

“Given the shambles over parking charges, it is difficult for islanders to believe a HIAL consultation on anything.”

HIAL said air traffic control staff and unions, airport managers and senior HIAL personnel have been involved throughout the process, while the Scottish Government and local politicians have also been kept informed.

The project is estimated to be phased in over the next eight to ten years.