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Transport / HIAL to carry out islands impact assessment on air traffic control plans

Sumburgh Airport. Photo: HIAL

THE SCOTTISH Government has confirmed that an island impact assessment will be undertaken in the coming months on controversial proposals to operate air traffic control services in the Highlands and Islands remotely from Inverness.

Orkney MSP Liam McArthur, however, said that “given [Highland and Islands Airports Ltd’s] approach to consultation so far, there have to be questions over how robust or independent this assessment will be”.

He called on Highland and Islands Airports (HIAL) to halt its plans to “allow more time for alternative options to be explored”.

HIAL confirmed last week that it would be pressing ahead with plans to manage flights in the region remotely from Inverness.

The plans will bring together air traffic management at Sumburgh, Dundee, Inverness, Kirkwall and Stornoway into a single location, and downgrade the level of air traffic service at Benbecula and Wick John O’Groats.

Due to the amount of air traffic, the 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.

HIAL explained that this meant they will “require two controller positions, one for aerodrome and one for approach radar” as it cannot be carried out from one combined position.

Politicians, Shetland Islands Council and the Prospect union have all expressed concern over the impact on jobs in rural locations.

HIAL said there are no planned reductions in staff numbers as a result of the project, but McArthur told parliament this week that “82 per cent of HIAL’s ATC staff have stated that they will leave the organisation should it continue down this path”.

Speaking at Holyrood on Tuesday, transport secretary Michael Matheson said: “I confirm that HIAL intends to undertake an island impact assessment in line with the legislation—the Islands (Scotland) Act 2018— in the coming months.”

He added: “Forthcoming regulatory changes and the general shift in the industry away from more traditional air traffic control procedures mean that doing nothing is not an option.

“The option chosen by HIAL, after very careful consideration, embraces new technology, future proofs operations, improves safety and will benefit the communities served by the airports involved.”

Liberal Democrat McArthur, however, said “as one local ATC staff member in Orkney told me earlier this week, HIAL’s plans offer no additional safety benefits over the other options available, while introducing serious additional risk, including a complete reliance on information technology infrastructure that no one who lives in the Highlands and Islands believes can be delivered for anything like the costs that are being quoted”.

Matheson said that he expected the government-owned HIAL to continue to engage with staff and trade unions on this matter “in the way in which it has done over the past two years”.

He pointed to Loganair chief executive Jonathan Hinkles’ recent words of support for the shift in how air traffic control and the airspace will be run.

Labour’s Rhoda Grant said, however, that staff and communities have not been consulted.

“HIAL needs to speak to the specialists on its own payroll, who are totally ignored and whose concerns are not being listened to,” the Highlands and Islands MSP said.

“There is no connectivity. This is just another vanity project that will cost a huge amount of money, provide less service and damage our island and rural economies at the same time.”

Matheson replied: “Taking forward an approach that will enhance safety in air traffic control systems in HIAL airports cannot be described as a vanity project.

“As I have outlined, any changes that are introduced will require to be approved by the Civil Aviation Authority. The CAA must be satisfied that those changes meets its strict safety regulations.

“If there is engagement with local communities that the member believes HIAL should undertake, over and above the action that it has taken to date, I would be more than happy to hear from her. Alternatively, she can contact the chair and chief executive of HIAL directly to suggest further actions that it could take.

“HIAL has provided me with details about the extent of its engagement. I recognise that some air traffic control staff will not support HIAL’s approach, which is why it is important that HIAL continues to engage with the staff who are affected and their union representatives.

“I have impressed upon HIAL the need to ensure that engagement is maintained and, where necessary, extended as HIAL takes the modernisation programme forward.”

HIAL said last week that digital tower technology is proven and currently operating all over the world, including Sweden, Norway and at London City Airport.

“Cameras offer air traffic controllers panoramic views of the airfield showing more detail than is possible with the human eye”, the operator said.

Scottish Parliament election, 6 May 2021