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Transport / Cross-party opposition to HIAL’s remote tower plans

CONTROVERSIAL plans to centralise air traffic control for most Highlands and Islands airports, including Sumburgh, were subject to lengthy debate in the Scottish Parliament this morning.

The debate, tabled by Shetland MSP Beatrice Wishart, called for the parliament to note “widespread concern” over the plans, which would include scrapping manned control towers at many airports, including Sumburgh.

Wishart, who opened the speeches, said that safety and jobs were both at stake if Highlands and Islands Airports Limited (HIAL), which is owned by the Scottish Government, presses ahead with the scheme.

She said that the main issues with such a system were safety and the lack of digital “resilience” which could lead to crucial communications failures along with the potential loss of 86 “highly skilled jobs” – the equivalent of hundreds in a city.

Wishart said that she had spoken to a Swedish executive who said his company had decided not to introduce the system because the technology was “not mature”.

Furthermore, HIAL was “setting itself up for a recruitment crisis” by driving away staff from an already discontented workforce.

She said that consultations with staff had been “one way” with the decision already made. An islands impact assessment to be conducted by HIAL was “too little too late.”

Highlands and Islands MSP Jamie Halcro Johnston said that it was felt the decision had already been taken and that it was another example of concerns being “ridden roughshod over again.”

It was also claimed that the £123 million centralised system had been identified as both the most expensive and highest risk option in a report to HIAL by air operation consultants Helios.

But cabinet secretary for transport Michael Matheson said that the report identified the proposals as the best way ahead. “Helios recommended remote towers as best suited to” HIAL’s multi airport situation, he said.

He added: “HIAL will only introduce arrangements that enhance safety. This will enable controllers to see aircraft at all times.

“The current arrangements are safe, but we should always, always, look at ways to enhance safety.”

Matheson said that faith should be placed in the judgement of the Civil Aviation Authority and its pan-European counterpart which were not only introducing the regulatory framework that made the changes necessary, but would be licensing and approving the system put in place by HIAL.

Matheson said that air traffic control services were changing around the world. “Doing nothing is not an option because it could lead to the cessation of air services in the Highlands and Islands.”

Labour MSP Rhoda Grant. Photo: Shetland News

But Highlands and Islands MSP Rhoda Grant said that a remote system needed great digital connectivity.

“London City airport is not yet operating such a service independently despite having much greater “redundancy”, plus its closeness to a number of other major airports, should things go wrong.

Highlands and Islands MSP John Finnie echoed Grant’s concerns and said HIAL “are introducing multiple points of failure” in what he dubbed a “flawed process”. He called on HIAL to show social responsibility rather than acting like a “multinational corporation.”

Following the debate, Wishart called on Matheson to halt the plans.

She added: “It is disappointing however that the cabinet secretary seems to be giving HIAL the green light to press ahead with centralisation despite the lack of consultation and risks associated with the project.

“No one is disputing the need for modernisation and it goes without saying that safety can and should always be improved, but remote towers are not the only option available to HIAL, nor is ripping highly skilled jobs out of rural and island communities.

She said HIAL had “failed to consult properly with staff members and wider communities, to the point that some air traffic control staff are now actively seeking to leave the organisation.”

Orkney MSP Liam McArthur said: “It is hard to escape the conclusion that the deck was stacked in favour of the ‘remote tower’ model from the start.

“HIAL has been determined to pursue this centralisation from the get go, despite their own consultants identifying it as the most risky and costly option.

“All the talk of consultation counts for little if no account is taken of the concerns being raised by ATC staff and other stakeholders. It also calls into question the value of any island impact assessment that HIAL might do on plans they intend taking forward in any event.

“Modernisation of air traffic control services is not in dispute. This needs to happen. However, unless HIAL find a way of convincing their staff, not only will their centralisation plans be undeliverable but current lifeline services will be under threat.”