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Politics / Carmichael leads parliament debate on local aviation concerns

THE UK Government has reiterated that the move to centralise air traffic control in the Highlands and Islands to Inverness would need to be approved first by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA).

Under-secretary of state for transport Paul Maynard said airport operator Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd (HIAL) will “need to make sure that its proposals satisfy the local conditions”.

Maynard was speaking during a debate in Westminster on the CCA which was led by Northern Isles MP Alistair Carmichael on Thursday.

Carmichael focused on two topics – HIAL’s plans to base air traffic control services for the region in Inverness, and a Loganair flight which took off from Kirkwall Airport last year without air traffic control support.

Responding to Carmichael’s concerns over HIAL’s remote air traffic control plans, Maynard said: “I assure the chamber that, before any new air traffic management system could take effect, the CAA would need to approve it.

“In giving its approval, the CAA would be bound by ​its overarching duty for the maintenance of air safety, so Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd will need to make sure that its proposals satisfy the local conditions.”

HIAL has repeatedly stated that the CAA would need to give the project the thumbs up before it progressed further.

The government-owned airport operator 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”.

The councils in Shetland, Orkney and the Western Isles, as well as politicians, have called on HIAL to halt the plans to carry out an impact assessment, with concerns over issues like safety and connectivity often raised by critics.

Speaking about the Kirkwall Airport incident, which happened during air traffic controllers’ recent industrial action, Maynard told the Westminster debate: “After concluding its investigation, the Civil Aviation Authority highlighted its findings with the organisations involved during the summer.

“The ​CAA has since held several meetings with the airport to discuss progress. The airport has also conducted its own investigation, and as a result commissioned a study into the findings raised by its own report. The right hon. Gentleman might wish to request that report from the airport company.”

Speaking after the debate, Carmichael welcomed the minister welcoming the need for approval before the air traffic control plans move forward.

“I believe, however, that practical concerns about implementation cannot be the only criteria,” he said.

“The impact of withdrawing local jobs and support from communities must be taken into account and I am concerned about the way in which HIAL is pressing forward with their proposals with little regard for this.”

Referring to the Kirkwall incident, the Liberal Democrat MP said: “I have seen reports following the debate that HIAL is not inclined to share its own investigation into the Kirkwall Airport incident.

“While it has a right to its own internal processes, I believe that it is in the interest of all involved to resolve this issue clearly and openly. The initial incident last year was debated and contested in public, and it is only reasonable that the final conclusions should be shared publicly as well, to ensure public confidence in local aviation.”