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Transport / Petitions committee to invite HIAL to give evidence on remote tower technology

Caithness MSP Gail Ross calls for the project to be scrapped

HIAL employs 55 air traffic controllers.

THE OPERATORS of airports in the Highlands and Islands will be invited to give evidence to the Scottish Parliament’s petitions committee after members voiced grave concerns over hugely controversial plans to introduce a remotely operated air traffic control system in the area.

Government-owned Highlands and Islands Airport Limited (HIAL) will now be required to explain the rationale behind its plans that could result in the loss of many well remunerated air traffic control jobs from island communities.

And referring to the critical report into the Scottish Government’s delivery of two overdue and over-budget ferries for government-owned CalMac, committee members said they needed to keep a close eye on the cost of the air traffic control project to prevent a similar “fiasco that we had with the two ferries”.

SNP MSP for Caithness, Sutherland and Ross, Gail Ross, called for the whole project to be scrapped and started again.

The current HIAL plan includes removing air traffic controllers from the airports at Sumburgh, Kirkwall, Stornoway, Dundee and Inverness and centralising the service in an office building in Inverness by 2023. The airports at Wick and Benbecula would be downgraded.

The move is opposed by communities in the area, as well as the Prospect trade union representing most of the employees. The parliament’s committee was petitioned by former employees and the Benbecula Community Council in May this year.

Contributing to the committee’s deliberation on Wednesday morning, Orkney MSP Liam McArthur said the company’s own consultants had described the current direction of travel as the “most riskiest and most costly option”.

He said that contrary to HIAL’s position recruitment and retention of air traffic controllers in the islands had never been an issue and, in fact, the “recruitment challenge” would currently appear to exist around Inverness, the very place the remote control centre is due to be located.

Other committee members suggested that if air traffic controllers moved to Inverness in order to continue working for HIAL, there would be nothing to stop them moving on to the larger airports across the UK or abroad where they would be able to earn significantly more.

Highlands and Islands Labour MSP Rhoda Grant added that in these Covid times it was not a good idea to concentrate all of the employees in one workplace, and hence the airport towers in separate island communities were the safer options.

Caithness, Sutherland and Ross MSP Gail Ross. Photo: Scottish Parliament

She added: “We really need to get HIAL to have a second thought about this, improve infrastructure yes, but this project is totally wrong headed.”

Gail Ross said the HIAL plans was one of the most contentious issues in her constituency at the moment.

“We got three main issues: public money, the safety aspect and the impact on the islands and rural economies,” she said.

“I would like to get HIAL and Transport Scotland in; I have too many questions for them and I want to ask them face to face and, depending what we get back in evidence from the chief executives of HIAL and Transport Scotland, will form the basis of a letter to the minister with our recommendation.

“I must say that at this moment in time, and probably along with Liam [McArthur] and Rhoda [Grant], my recommendation would be to scrap the whole thing and start again.”

Committee chairperson, Labour MSP Johann Lamont, said the issue was a perfect example of how the government’s own dispersal programme for civil servants into rural areas was not followed.

She said that Inverness might be seen as rural from a central belt perspective, but depending on the resilience of modern technology, “nothing needs to be in the big cities anymore”.