A WAR of words is continuing between Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd (HIAL) and union members days before a strike is set to close six airports including Sumburgh.
Both sides are blaming the other for stubbornness in the dispute where air traffic controllers employed by HIAL want a £10,000-plus pay rise to bring their rates closer to staff employed at larger and busier airports.
The Prospect union has warned HIAL to stop “antagonising” staff with “misleading claims” while HIAL has blamed the air traffic controllers for “escalating” the dispute with a strike on Thursday (23 May), which will bring airports across the Highlands and Islands to a standstill.
The airports involved are: Benbecula, Dundee, Inverness, Kirkwall, Stornoway and Sumburgh, while a local arrangement is in place for Wick John O’Groats Airport to remain open to air traffic.
Prospect negotiator David Avery said on Tuesday that HIAL should focus on persuading the Scottish Government to step in and resolve the dispute and blamed the government owned airport company of making “inaccurate claims” about Prospect’s position in the pay dispute.
Avery added: “It is extremely disappointing that [HIAL managing director] Inglis Lyon is continuing to antagonise staff by presenting a deliberately misleading account of the position of their union in this dispute.
“We want this dispute to be resolved in a satisfactory manner, and this kind of communication to staff is not helpful as part of that process.
“It is welcome that HIAL have acknowledged that the Scottish Government is the major obstacle to progress here.
“Instead of further winding up staff, HIAL should be focusing on persuading Scottish Government ministers to help them resolve this dispute by granting them the flexibility to negotiate an acceptable pay deal”.
In an earlier statement, Lyon said HIAL regretted “this escalation” and apologised for the “inconvenience that this has caused our customers”.
He added: “We continue to work closely with our airlines to mitigate the effects of strike action and I wish to thank them and all our staff who have worked extremely hard to implement contingency measures.
“Throughout this process, HIAL has been fully committed to resolving this dispute. We are disappointed that our efforts to provide possible solutions have been rejected by Prospect and its claim has not altered and remains a wage increase of at least 10 per cent.
“The union is fully aware of the Scottish Government pay policy that HIAL is bound by and was aware prior to submitting its claim.
“The cabinet secretary for transport, infrastructure and connectivity has again confirmed that HIAL is not permitted to negotiate a settlement outwith the pay policy.
“We believe HIAL air traffic controllers are well remunerated and have already accepted a pay increase backdated to April 2018.
“From the outset the union has repeatedly cited pay differentials between our staff and controllers working in Edinburgh, Glasgow and London. Air traffic movements make this comparison misleading and unrealistic.
“Furthermore, the evidence from the analysis of air traffic controller pay at non-HIAL airports jointly undertaken by HIAL and Prospect did not support a double-digit wage award.
“There is no evidence to support Prospect’s claim and quite simply, HIAL cannot offer a double-digit pay increase.
“I urge the union to consider the best interests of all their HIAL members, our communities and those with a stake in the long-term future of air services in the Highlands and Islands and moderate its claim to help us jointly resolve matters.
“Unless Prospect temper its claim and HIAL is afforded flexibility around the implementation of the Scottish Government’s public pay policy, I do not see a quick resolution to this dispute.”
But in an open letter to HIAL Avery refuted Lyon’s claims that union members had already accepted a pay offer, saying it was rejected by 94 per cent of members.
He also said that HIAL had the latitude to negotiate a deal with union members and had chosen not to take up all the flexibility at its disposal.
The union said it welcomed “the acknowledgement from Mr Lyon in his email that the dispute is likely to continue unless ‘HIAL is afforded flexibility around the implementation of the Scottish Government’s public pay policy’ by Scottish Government ministers.”
The letter adds: “While we are aware of the Scottish Government’s pay policy, we do not accept it. It is not collectively bargained at a ministerial level and discussions are left for employers and their unions.
“Further I note that other organisations covered by this policy have gone significantly further than HIAL while covered by the same policy. HIAL have chosen not to show that flexibility in 2018 and in previous years.
“The pay offer was not accepted by air traffic controllers. It was formally rejected at ballot on the offer by 94 per cent of air traffic members.
“While HIAL implemented the award it was on the clear understanding that the offer was not accepted by air traffic controllers. I set this out in writing to you when Prospect responded to the pay offer.
“f you needed further confirmation the offer was rejected then the results of the indicative (97 per cent rejection) and statutory ballots (90 per cent rejection) should have made this clear. This is not a rejection by a small majority of ‘troublemakers’ these are near unanimous rejections on high turnouts.”
Avery said “we remain committed to resolving this dispute but it requires that the company engages with the fundamental issue which is below inflation increases to staff pay over a protracted period of time”.
“Thus far you have failed to do so,” he concluded.