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Transport / Industrial action continues to cause ‘extreme disruption’ to flights

Future of some Loganair services affected by impact of air traffic controllers’ pay dispute

A Loganair Saab 340 at Sumburgh Airport. Photo: Shetland News

A LOGANAIR plane on its way to Shetland earlier this month had to turn back to Aberdeen seven minutes before touching down at Sumburgh Airport because air traffic controllers ‘working to rule’ had gone home.

Airline boss Jonathan Hinkles said that ongoing industrial action by air traffic controllers at airports operated by Highlands and Islands Airports Limited (HIAL) was causing “extreme disruption”.

The flight in question on 6 September had to turn back south because it had suffered a knock-on delay and was due to land in Sumburgh Airport past its opening hours.

Hinkles, speaking at the Shetland external transport forum on Wednesday, said the airline had been forced to discontinue its successful Manchester service as a result of the ongoing industrial dispute.

He added that the popular Sumburgh to Bergen service was also on the line for 2020 should the dispute not be resolved soon.

Air traffic controllers at HIAL’s eleven airports have staged a number of one-day strikes as part of an increasingly bitter dispute over pay, but it is the ongoing ‘work to rule’ action by the Prospect union that creates the biggest headache for Loganair.

Shetland News reported earlier this summer that the financial hit taken by Loganair as a result of the disruption is understood to have exceeded £1 million.

“We have the impact of the ongoing ‘work to rule’ which is less predictable and more difficult to counter than strike days”, Hinkles said.

Loganair managing director Jonathan Hinkles: ‘very challenging’ circumstances. Photo: Hans J Marter/Shetland News

“That really is extreme disruption to our customers. We had a couple of customers on that flight [on 6 September] whose outward flight the previous Saturday had also been disrupted because of the ‘work to rule’ action.”

That combined with the “worst flying summer due to fog” is creating “very challenging” circumstances for the airline, Hinkles added.

The airline boss said that Loganair’s expansion programme which has seen a number of new UK and international routes being added to its network is helping “to cushion the blow that is the air traffic controllers’ strike”.

While expressing sympathy for the HIAL’s predicament of having to stick to Scottish Government public sector pay guidelines, the managing director warned that the dispute was already having an impact on HIAL’s other customers such as the oil and gas industry.

“I met with some of them in Aberdeen on Tuesday, and to say that they are irritated beyond measure would probably be a moderate understatement,” he said.

“They are looking at options to bypass HIAL airports, such as flying customers from Aberdeen directly to the rigs and not come through Shetland at all.

“That is bad news for HIAL, bad news for us and bad news for the air traffic controllers, because, ultimately, HIAL will not need as many of them if the airports are not as busy as they are today.”

But a spokesman for HIAL said the downturn in oil business at Sumburgh had been happening for much longer and was not connected to the industrial action.

And helicopter flights were mainly operated during normal working hours and hence not affected by the ‘work to rule’ issue, HIAL said.

“HIAL has been clear that helicopter flights have for some time been operating directly from Aberdeen,” the spokesman said.

“Indeed, this has been the main reason why passenger numbers have been down at Shetland – the drop is published on the company’s website in the company’s annual report.

“This has been the case for the past 18 months or so at Sumburgh, long before the current industrial action and was as a result of a decision taken by the oil and gas operators for their own reasons.”