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Transport / Remote tower technology has ‘no benefits to Shetland’

Union and politicians respond to opinion piece by former HIAL employee published by Shetland News

PLANS to move air traffic controllers from Scottish island airports to a remote tower in Inverness will have no benefits to Shetland as it will further exacerbate HIAL’s recruitment problems and reduce resilience at Sumburgh Airport, according to a union boss.

Speaking in support of the analysis in an opinion piece by former Highland and Islands Airports Limited employee Peter Henderson, published by Shetland News on Saturday, negotiator for the Prospect union David Avery said there was no doubt that HIAL would be more successful in filling air traffic control jobs when recruiting locally.

HIAL’s air traffic controller recruitment: a view from within

Prospect has just published its response to the belated island impact assessment on HIAL’s controversial remote tower project which would result in the centralisation of air traffic control in Inverness by 2023.

Peter Henderson retired from working at the control tower at Kirkwall airport in summer of last year,

The union negotiator said: “Far from providing resilience the remote towers programme is going to further exacerbate HIAL’s recruitment problems by removing staff links to local communities.

“As a result we will not only see the removal of high quality, well paid, skilled jobs from the Shetland economy, but a reduction in resilience of the Shetland operation.

“The remote towers project delivers no benefits to Shetland. The service provided will be no better than the service provided now with no improvements to resilience and loss of employment to the Shetland economy.”

Responding to Henderson’s contribution, other politicians have called on HIAL to listen to their employees by holding meaningful consultation in order to restore trust within the company but also to the communities it serves.

Although given prior sight of the opinion piece, which argues that there is no recruitment crisis for air traffic controllers in remote communities and that “staff recruited through local advertising almost invariably remain with HIAL from recruitment until retirement”, the airport operator declined to respond directly to the points made by Henderson.

Instead, in a statement, it said: “HIAL must transform its air traffic management system to meet operational needs now and into the future.  There is wide agreement that doing nothing is not an option.

“Our chosen approach is the best option and offers long-term solutions in terms of resilience and flexibility both during normal and out-of-hours operations.

“Digital tower technology has been operational since 2015. Currently, Norwegian, Swedish, German, Dutch, Danish, Belgian, Irish and UK national air navigation service providers (ANSP) have either implemented, or are in the process of implementing, this technology.”

Yet a vast majority of employees and the communities affected by the move remain opposed to the project.

Shetland MSP Beatrice Wishart: ‘It’s not too late for HIAL to listen to staff and engage openly to restore trust’. Photo: Shetland News

Shetland MSP Beatrice Wishart said: “Earlier this year Prospect reported that 94 per cent of members at HIAL opposed the remote towers plan and 82 per cent would be more likely to leave if the plan was implemented.

“It’s clear that staff remain frustrated with the lack of meaningful consultation and transparency from HIAL throughout this process.

“It’s not too late for HIAL to listen to staff and engage openly to restore trust. Despite legitimate concerns HIAL continues to push on with this project.”

Councillor George Smith, whose constituency includes Sumburgh Airport, said that from speaking to local people in the community he very much recognises the point made in Henderson’s contribution to the debate.

In a recent council meeting Smith said it was “difficult to see any positives” from the remote tower project “and in particular for Sumburgh Airport”.

Speaking to Shetland News he said there was no recruitment issue other than the one created by HIAL themselves after the company stopped recruiting to specific airports. “If it is not broken, why fix it?” he said.

Labour MSP Rhoda Grant: …time that we support our locally grown talent’. Photo: Shetland News

Highlands and Islands Labour MSP Rhoda Grant, a long term opponent to the plans, added: “The world is full of Scots from the Highlands and Islands who have made exceptional contributions to their fields, from marine to medical industries; from the arts to architecture.

“It is well known that we suffer from a brain drain, but this is not because we don’t have the skills or capabilities – quite the opposite.

“Air traffic control is a technical and demanding job, one which is challenging and rewarding and provides immeasurable benefit to local communities – both economically and socially as it encourages young families to settle and invest in the communities that the jobs are based in.

“HIAL and Scottish Government need to step up to the plate, recognise the wealth of untapped talent in the islands and our remote mainland communities and evidence their faith in these communities with investment in training and jobs as suggested by their own air traffic controllers over the last few years.

“In return they will be rewarded with loyalty, talent and a robust air traffic control network that will be the envy of the world. It’s about time that we support our locally grown talent to make exceptional contributions at home as well as abroad.”