THE CONTROVERSIAL proposal to operate air traffic control services in the Highlands and Islands remotely from Inverness will be raised in the Scottish Parliament next week after Shetland MSP Beatrice Wishart won cross party support to debate the issue.
Government-owned Highlands and Islands Airports Limited (HIAL) is pushing ahead with plans to introduce a new remote air traffic control system that would make air traffic controllers working at the company’s airports at Sumburgh, Kirkwall, Stornoway, Benbecula, Wick, and Dundee surplus to requirements.
Concern has been raised by island communities over connectivity and potential safety issues.
A motion to discuss the issue in the name of the Shetland MSP has now received the necessary support from two other parties, namely from Jamie Halcro Johnston of the Conservatives and Labour’s Rhoda Grant.
Wishart will lead the debate which has been pencilled into the parliament’s diary for next Thursday (23 January) between 12.45pm and 1.15pm.
She said: “It now appears clear that HIAL’s management is intent on pressing ahead with their plans to centralise air traffic control services. This is deeply worrying given the serious questions that still hang over these proposals and the level of concern amongst ATC staff.
“HIAL has been intent on pursuing this option from the outset, despite its own consultants identifying the ‘remote tower’ model as the most costly and risky option. Since then, there has been a desperate attempt to get the evidence to fit the desired outcome.
“That is simply not acceptable, particularly given the lifeline nature of these air services. No-one disputes the need to modernise and invest in the current infrastructure. However, this must be balanced with the safety of passengers, reliability of services and the benefits of sustaining high-skilled jobs in our island communities.
“To date, the Scottish Government has been happy to wave through HIAL’s proposals with little evidence of robust scrutiny. I hope this debate will force the transport minister to think again and begin asking serious questions about these latest centralisation plans”.
Her Orkney colleague Liam McArthur described the plans as a recipe for disaster: “Unfortunately, the Scottish Government’s recent track record on centralisation and major IT projects is not a happy or impressive one. That alone should make the transport secretary think twice about rubber stamping these proposals to centralise air traffic control services in Inverness.
“I know from discussions with local ATC staff members over the last two years that they remaining deeply unhappy and unconvinced about what is proposed.
“Their concerns over cost, deliverability, reliability and safety have simply not been answered by a management hell bent on pressing ahead regardless.”
Halcro Johnston, an Orkney resident and regular user of HIAL services in the region, added that he shared the concern of many people over HIAL’s plans to centralise air traffic control services in Inverness.
“There is real concern amongst HIAL employees that they don’t feel that they have been properly consulted, particularly amongst those living in the islands. HIAL should reflect on the feedback they are receiving and review their options before they commit to the approach they are advocating.
“I am yet to be convinced that these proposals from HIAL aren’t more about saving money than providing a better service. Given how important our vital lifeline air-links are, that would focusing on the wrong priority from HIAL.”
HIAL said remote tower technology is already used successfully across Europe and at London City Airport, but said that it wished not to comment on Wishart’s motion at this stage.
A spokesman added that all local MSPs had received an invite from HIAL to hear the latest update on the project.
The full motion can be found here.