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News / Island councils call for air traffic control plans to be halted

HIAL employs 55 air traffic controllers.

SHETLAND Islands Council has joined forces with the local authorities in Orkney and the Western Isles to call for plans to centralise air traffic control services to be halted.

The three councils want an islands communities impact assessment to be carried out while the plans are paused.

The local authorities have made the request after government-owned Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd (HIAL) – which operates Sumburgh Airport and ten other airports across the region – decided to press ahead with plans to base air traffic control services in Inverness and operate these remotely.

Scottish Government transport secretary Michael Matheson previously confirmed that an islands impact assessment would be carried out, but only after HIAL had already announced it decision to press ahead with its plans.

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

A spokesperson for the island councils said: “All three island councils are of the view that, in line with legislation under the Islands Act, a full islands communities impact assessment should be carried out before any more work is carried out on the centralisation of ATC services.

“Not only would the centralisation of these services lose skilled island jobs, they could also curtail the future development of the island airports.

“Centralisation of services and jobs is entirely contrary to what island authorities have been working towards over the past few years in terms of growing island economies.

“We believe there are other options which should be more fully explored, such as those that HIAL’s own consultants previously highlighted.  In the meantime it is imperative that the centralisation process is halted to assess the true impact this will have on our island communities”.

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The plans will bring together air traffic management at Sumburgh, Dundee, Inverness, Kirkwall and Stornoway into a single location in the coming years, 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.

A spokesperson for the airport operator said on Monday afternoon that the planned changes were part of its strategy of continuing to provide “vital lifeline services” to island communities.

“We require a long-term solution that will address challenges including staff recruitment and retention, provide resilience at our airports, meet impending regulatory requirements and assure air navigation service delivery well into the future.  Our Air Traffic Management Strategy (ATMS) aims to address these challenges.

“HIAL will always do all that it can to ensure the longevity of air services to the islands and has committed to undertaking an island and community impact assessment as part of an ongoing consultative process.

“We continue to maintain open dialogue with our colleagues and stakeholders as we undertake this significant change management process.”

Transport secretary Matheson recently told the Scottish Parliament: “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.”

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