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Transport / Union casts more doubt on remote air traffic control plans after commissioning own report

HIAL says the proposals are the ‘only option that offers long-term solutions in terms of resilience and flexibility, both during normal and out-of-hours operations’

Sumburgh Airport. Photo: HIAL

THE PROSPECT union says remote communities will “pay the price” if proposals to centralise air traffic control in the Highlands and Islands in Inverness go ahead.

The union said it is “no wonder places like Shetland are looking into self-rule when their needs are paid so little regard”.

The comments came after the union commissioned its own report into Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd’s (HIAL) controversial plans.

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The scheme would see Sumburgh Airport’s air traffic control managed remotely from Inverness, as well as services at four other airports in the HIAL network.

HIAL says the rationale for the change is in particular to address “historic and potential future staff retention and recruitment” challenges at Sumburgh, Dundee, Inverness, Kirkwall and Stornoway.

Prospect’s report says that the remote tower programme “will take at least £18 million of economic benefit from island communities”.

It also claims that implementation costs of the scheme “have already almost doubled to £33.5 million, with lifetime costs £70 million higher than the status quo”.

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The union also claims that early adopters of new technology, like HIAL, will faces risks of functionality.

The report has been written by Dave Watson, who was the head of policy and public affairs at UNISON Scotland until his retirement in September 2018.

He has experience in undertaking analysis and negotiation of a range of procurement projects in the public and private sector.

Under the plans air traffic control staff in remote areas are set to be asked to relocate to Inverness, but HIAL acknowledges some may not want to.

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An islands impact assessment currently being consulted on states that there are 13.1 full-time equivalent and three part-time jobs in air traffic control at Sumburgh.

Prospect negotiator David Avery said: “From day one HIAL have presented this as a done deal with negligible consultation, even less transparency, and bad faith.

“Prospect and its members in HIAL are not against reasoned changes to the technology and the operating procedures of air traffic control in the Highlands and Islands but these plans are not fit for purpose.

“The plans will remove vital high value jobs from communities which can little afford to lose them, totalling at least £18m.”

Avery said it is “beyond belief” that HIAL continue to press on with these plans.

“The plans were already questionable but with the aviation industry in crisis the risks are even higher and must be rethought,” he added.

“If the Scottish Government and HIAL continue with the remote towers plans it will be remote communities that pay the price. It’s no wonder places like Shetland are looking into self-rule when their needs are paid so little regard.”

In response, a HIAL spokesperson said: “Given that doing nothing is not an option (a position agreed by Prospect) the chosen approach is the only option that offers long-term solutions in terms of resilience and flexibility, both during normal and out-of-hours operations.

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“Our position is clear and despite continued dialogue with the union we are compelled to challenge many of the points made in this report presented by Prospect.”

The airport operator said that the move is the “only option that offers long-term solutions in terms of resilience and flexibility, both during normal and out-of-hours operations”.

In terms of cost, HIAL said that “given that doing nothing is not an option, a position supported by Prospect, any of the options above will inevitably cost more and the approximate costs produced will be finalised once the procurement exercise has concluded”.

It added: “HIAL is unique in that its core function is to ensure lifeline and essential services for our island and remote communities.

“The Covid pandemic has highlighted the important role HIAL’s airports play in maintaining connectivity for our communities.

“While HIAL ensured that airports remained open to maintain those vital and essential services for our communities throughout the lockdown period, the pandemic has highlighted the vulnerability of our current air traffic service provision and resilience.

“The pandemic has underlined the importance of continuing with our ATMS programme to address the concerns raised during Covid to deliver a long-term, sustainable solution to maximise operational flexibility, capability and build resilience wherever possible.”

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