MSPs on a Scottish Parliament committee have agreed to write to the Scottish Government to request more information on plans to centralise air traffic control in the Highlands and Islands in Inverness.
It follows a petition submitted to the parliament against the controversial Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd (HIAL) plans on behalf of Benbecula Community Council.
Former HIAL employees John Doig and Peter Henderson, who support the petition, gave short presentations against the plans at a meeting of the parliament’s cross-party public petitions committee on Thursday morning.
Henderson, whose 18 year career with HIAL at Kirkwall Airport including working as an air traffic services operations assistant, said the case made by HIAL for remote towers has been a “one-sided story” so far.
HIAL’s project would see Sumburgh Airport’s air traffic control managed remotely from Inverness, as well as services at four other airports in the HIAL network.
The Scottish Government-owned company says the rationale for the change is in particular to address “historic and potential future staff retention and recruitment” challenges.
Henderson disputed claims by HIAL that there are recruitment and retention difficulties at its airports, while he also expressed concern over the safety of the technology.
Following a question from committee convener Johann Lamont, Henderson said the petitioners have not had any proper consultation with the Scottish Government on the plans.
He said meetings with MPs and MSPs is “as far as we can get”.
“HIAL have done nothing to prove any of this is acceptable and safe,” Henderson added.
He noted that existing air traffic control methods are “tried and tested”.
The former HIAL employee spoke up in favour of air traffic controllers having view of airfields with their own eye sight, rather than via cameras.
He suggested those working in air traffic control – including those in Inverness – are generally not in favour of the plans.
An islands impact assessment is being carried out on behalf of HIAL with local authorities and community councils, but Henderson reiterated that the airport operator is planning to press ahead with the plans regardless.
The islands impact document says it is “not the role of the assessment to recommend that a specific course of action should or should not be carried out”.
“It’s not going to change anything, so it’s meaningless,” Henderson said.
Labour MSP Lamont said she was “quite struck” by the arguments.
She felt the plans “seem to be the opposite” of the supporting local communities.
Lamont also hoped that the impact assessment would not just be a “tick box exercise”.
She suggested the committee write to the Scottish Government for more information, as well as Highlands and Islands Enterprise.
SNP member David Torrance also suggested writing to HIAL and local authorities.
Caithness, Sutherland and Ross SNP MSP Gail Ross said there were a number of issue at play, including safety, jobs and the “untested” nature of the technology.
She also suggested writing to Loganair and the union Prospect, as well as managers of the airports due to be affected.
Conservative MSP Tom Mason also added that he felt there was a “conflict” between what HIAL was trying the achieve and what communities want.
HIAL previously said 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”.
In its written submission in response to the petition, the Scottish Government said “HIAL’s top priority in relation to ATC is to ensure the safe operation of air services”.
“Remote digital towers are being increasingly used across the industry and are being deployed at airports in the UK and Ireland, such as London City and Dublin, while also being used as a contingency at Heathrow and Jersey,” it added.
“They are currently in use at seven airports in Sweden, one in Germany, are in planned transition at eight airports in Colorado, and are in development at airports in the Netherlands, Norway, Denmark, Belgium and Brazil.
“The expectation within the industry is that there will be a more general move away from towers at airports. Introducing this type of technology means that HIAL will be competing on a like-for-like basis with other airports.”
The government concluded: “We are satisfied that HIAL has taken their decision based on the best available information and an in-depth analysis of the different options.
“We do not believe that a further assessment of the decisions that HIAL has taken or the decision making process they have used in relation to the ATMS Project [air traffic management system] is required.
“A failure to move in the same direction as the rest of the industry now will simply store up problems for HIAL which will have to be addressed in the future. It is essential that HIAL stays ahead of the curve to ensure that connectivity is protected.”
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