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Business / Search for future use of Scatsta continues as airport gets set to close on Friday

Serco confirms 65 redundancies

Offshore workers boarding a Bristow operated helicopter at Scatsta.
Offshore flights from Scatsta will come to an end later this week.

THE PROSPECT of finding a future use for Scatsta Airport remains uncertain at a time the full economic impact of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic is yet to hit.

The oil industry airport near the Sullom Voe Terminal will close on Friday with the loss of anything between 80 and 100 jobs when the contract of transferring oil workers to and from oil rigs will be handed to a Babcock/Loganair partnership operating from Sumburgh Airport.

It is understood that current operator Bristow Helicopters/Eastern Airways will fly from Sumburgh as of 21 June to allow to a smooth transfer on 1 July.

Owners of Scatsta Airport, Shetland Islands Council, said it has had discussions with the oil and gas industry to establish whether there might be a future for the facility but those talks did not lead to anything.

None of the 65 Serco jobs lost at Scatsta Airport will transfer to Sumburgh. Loganair has confirmed that no new jobs will created in their part of the operation while Babcock continues to have talks with Bristow Helicopters and the unions over the transfer (TUPE) of at least some of the pilots and engineers.

Head of aerodrome services at Serco Steve Knights said: “Sadly the 65 Serco employees at Scatsta Airfield, who have performed a great service for Shetland over many years, all face redundancy as a result of the decision that has been taken to cease operations.

“The airfield is currently winding down and we expect operations to transfer to Sumburgh on Sunday 21 June.”

Local engineering firm Nordri said it had no choice but to make a number of employees redundant after losing a Scatsta maintenance contract.

Also counting the cost is haulage firm EMN Plant which confirmed that the end of skip hire, waste management, plant-hire and runway maintenance contracts resulted in the loss of around £150,000 of turnover to the company.

But the company hopes job losses can be avoided. Managing director Ellis Nicolson said: “We are going to take this on the chin, and try to find other work. It’s an unfortunate loss of business at a time of downturn everywhere.”

Bristow meanwhile was unable to give details as to how many of its employees are affected by the move other than saying that the company remained committed to “deliver large-scale aviation contracts across the entire UKCS, including routes through Shetland”.

It is however no secret that traffic levels at Scatsta Airport were in steep decline over recent years and that ”the writing was on the wall ever since BP left the consortium” [in 2018], as one industry insider put it.

Statistics from the Civil Aviation Authority show that the number of commercial aircraft movements at Scatsta dropped from almost 14,000 in 2010 to just below 5,000 movements last year. Passenger numbers fell accordingly.

In March 2014, for example, the airport recorded 721 helicopter movements. Five years later, in March 2019, the number of chopper movements had dropped by 62 per cent to just 270. Figures for March 2020 are lower still, but some of that decline should be attributed to the Covid-19 crisis.

The new Babcock/Loganair contract, which will become known as the ‘Shetland Partnership’ will not be anything the size Scatsta used to handle.

Reflecting the general downturn in the oil industry Babcock is expected to handle between four and six additional helicopter round trips a day, while Loganair will be able to serve the contract with three additional flights from Aberdeen using the airline’s new ATR aircraft.

Meanwhile, efforts are ongoing to try and find a use for the council asset at Scatsta. The facility received an £8 million facelift by then owner Shetland Leasing and Property Development Ltd (SLAP) at the end of the last decade when the terminal building was refurbished and a large new hanger was built.

The council’s chief executive Maggie Sandison said the local authority is keen to hear from anybody with an interest in using the facility, while local councillor Andrea Manson warned not to allow any wind farm development in the vicinity for at least a year, as that would preclude the airport from re-opening again.

During the planning process for the Viking Energy wind farm under section 36 of the Electricity Act a number of proposed wind turbines were removed after Scatsta operator Serco objected on grounds of aviation safety.

Manson said: “There is no interest yet from the oil industry. But we should not allow anything in there for at least a year – two windmills on a hill in Brae could ruin it forever.”