FLIGHTS in and out of Shetland could be managed remotely as of early 2023 should plans by Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd (HIAL) become a reality.
The government-owned airport operator announced on Friday the latest phase of its controversial air traffic management programme by confirming that the region’s new remote tower, the ‘Combined Surveillance Centre (CSC)’, will be located at New Century House in Inverness.
Aviation union Prospect described the plans to shut air traffic towers at five Highlands and Islands airports and to downgrade air traffic services at two further airports as “poorly thought-through” and said it would put the long-term future of vital air services at risk.
Shetland Islands Council meanwhile said it was “extremely concerned” over job losses and called for a proper islands impact assessment – a statutory requirement under the Islands (Scotland) Act 2018 – to be carried out.
Shetland MSP Beatrice Wishart said she is “extremely concerned” by the proposals.
The plans will bring together air traffic management at five airports into a single location: Sumburgh, Dundee, Inverness, Kirkwall and Stornoway, and downgrade the level of air traffic service at Benbecula and Wick John O’Groats.
Due to the amount of air traffic, Sumburgh, Inverness and Dundee airports will require a ‘two-controller position operation’, as it will not be possible to provide the service from the remote control centre alone, HIAL said.
The ‘transformational change programme’ would modernise the way airspace is managed, the company insisted. HIAL also said that there would be no planned reduction in staff, and at some airports, including Sumburgh, HIAL was looking to recruit air traffic controllers.
The HIAL plans envisage bringing air traffic control at Sumburgh into the new remote tower (CSC) by early 2023, after an operational transition period into a new contingency facility by September 2021.
HIAL insisted that staff and the unions have been kept informed of the changes thanks to a “thorough engagement process”. Prospect said, however, that local communities, politicians and HIAL’s customers have not been consulted despite the highly controversial nature of the proposals.
The union’s negotiator David Avery said moving air traffic control to Inverness would remove up to 60 skilled jobs and around £1.5m of direct employment from rural and island economies.
Prospect also fears that going down this route would reduce the safety and resilience of air traffic control across the Highlands by relying on a single centre and a single point of failure.
“It is inconceivable that such far-reaching changes can be brought in with the paltry level of consultation and transparency we have seen,” Avery said.
“For a government-owned company to treat its workers, customers, and local communities in this way is absolutely staggering. Prospect will not stand by and allow HIAL to downgrade Scotland’s islands with this threat to their air services and their economy.”
MSP Wishart said: “I am extremely concerned that HIAL is going ahead with plans to centralise air traffic control for airports, including Sumburgh.
“These plans have been waved through with little public scrutiny. That is not acceptable. Flights are a lifeline service for island communities like Shetland and we need answers to the very real concerns surrounding the safety and reliance of remote towers.
“I will be leading a Liberal Democrat debate on the matter next week. That debate must be an opportunity for HIAL and Transport Scotland to think again.”
Council leader Steven Coutts said on Friday morning: “We are extremely concerned about the apparent loss of jobs and families from Shetland, with no discernible benefit to the airport’s operation.
“This change requires a proper Islands Impact Assessment. HIAL need to show that they have clearly considered and understood the impacts of such a move, and we will be looking for assurance on this.”
HIAL managing director Inglis Lyon said digital tower technology is operating all over the world, including Sweden, Norway and London City Airport in the UK.
“The strategic programme decisions made by the Board will move us into the implementation phase of the project and allow detailed operational decisions to be made,” he said.
“The acquisition of a base for the new Combined Surveillance Centre marks a significant next step in the project.
“It will allow us to move forward with planning and procurement of the relevant systems to safely deliver a state of the art air traffic control management system and give additional clarity to colleagues and stakeholders as we deliver this complex and challenging programme.
“Our focus continues to be on aviation service delivery and providing a safe, modern and efficient means of handling aircraft for the regions and the islands in the future.”
The move by HIAL was welcomed by one of its main customers, Loganair.
Its managing director Jonathan Hinkles described the upgrade to air traffic systems at HIAL airports as a “significant step forward in the islands’ infrastructure”.
He added: “The new technology will provide additional safety protections versus those available with the current systems based on technology and procedures dating back several decades, and these will also help to reduce flight times and consequently reduce carbon emissions.
“From a safety and operational perspective, we welcome the developments.
“The key questions to be addressed are really around the economic impact of the removal of jobs from the island communities and how it will be ensured that the transition can be achieved given that the current ATC units will need to be fully manned right up to the day of transition to the new systems.
“In a world where air traffic controllers are amongst many groups facing skills shortages, this is a significant challenge that should not be under-estimated.”
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