SENIOR officials from HIAL have insisted walking away from controversial plans to centralise air traffic control to Inverness is “not on our agenda” despite fierce resistance from island communities, staff and trade unions.
HIAL chief executive Inglis Lyon was speaking during questioning from MSPs on the Scottish Parliament’s public petitions committee during a 100-minute session on Wednesday morning.
It comes in the same week that a Freedom of Information request from Shetland News revealed HIAL has already chalked up spending of £6 million on the plans – which would result in numerous jobs currently based in Shetland and other islands relocating to the Highland capital.
MSPs heard that the project’s overall cost could be as high as £34.7 million after a near doubling of the contingency budget from £2.9 million to £5.5 million.
Lyon said he remained confident the “complex” and “challenging” project would still be delivered “on time and on budget”.
But MSPs queued up to challenge the HIAL chief on a range of potential pitfalls that removing air traffic controllers from its airports at Sumburgh, Kirkwall, Stornoway, Dundee and Inverness by 2023 could cause.
They were considering a petition submitted to parliament calling for the plans to be halted. Lyon was accompanied by HIAL’s chief operating officer Gary Cobb and ATM professional adviser Pat Nolan.
One of the main justifications for the proposals has been oft-cited difficulties in recruiting and retaining staff.
But Labour’s Highlands and Islands MSP Rhoda Grant said she understood just five per cent of staff had indicated a willingness to relocate to Inverness. Given HIAL has a “no redundancies” policy in relation to the changes, she questioned the practicality of redeploying employees within their communities.
SNP Highlands MSP Gail Ross, meanwhile, asked Lyon why staff were so opposed to the proposals and what HIAL intends to do to repair a breakdown in trust.
She pointed out that some staff had felt the need to express their concerns to politicians anonymously “because they fear disciplinary action”.
Lyon said that “from the outset we have been honest with folk” about the need to shift jobs to Inverness.
Once it has determined how many staff are willing to relocate – or in some cases begin commuting – HIAL will be “getting down to discussions with folk who do not want to move” and will “do everything practicable within our powers to help these folk find the right solution”.
Prior to Covid-19 staff turnover among HIAL’s air traffic control staff was six per cent, which is “twice the industry average” and if that could be brought below average it “puts us in a really decent place”, Lyon added.
He said he believed the proportion willing to relocate was “a little bit more” than five per cent, but Grant said even if it was double that it “seems like a huge risk coming over the hill”.
An islands impact assessment has recently been completed by a consultant and will go before HIAL’s board next Wednesday (24 February).
Grant said staff had informed her they had been told the project will go head “regardless” of the islands impact assessment: “This is going to continue, it will make no difference,” she suggested.
Lyon said the impact assessment had just arrived on his desk and he was yet to digest its contents. The intention is to publish the findings following next week’s meeting.
He told the committee, chaired by former Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont, that the air traffic control proposals were “not something that HIAL has undertaken lightly”.
Lyon repeatedly referred to improving the “resilience” of the service and pointed to the creation of a “centre of excellence” for air traffic management that could “provide training and expertise to airports across the world”.
“If we don’t deliver the project then we compromise that essential piece of transport infrastructure in the Highlands and Islands, compromise the ability for airlines to fly and passengers to travel,” he warned.
Asked by Conservative MSP Tom Mason if HIAL was still in a position to walk away from the project if it was not feasible, Lyon replied: “Walking away from it is not on our agenda.”
Asked if he thought doing so was on the Scottish Government’s agenda, he responded: “I honestly don’t know, that’s something you’d need to ask them.”
Orkney MSP Liam McArthur, whose Liberal Democrat colleague and Shetland MSP Beatrice Wishart has also objected to the proposed removal of skilled jobs from the islands, said that while he did not doubt the recruitment challenges were real, the biggest area of concern when it came to retaining staff was now Inverness.
He also questioned how communities could have confidence the project will be delivered within budget given the potential effects of the Covid-19 pandemic and that the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) is pressing for additional communications links.
Communities have frequently voiced fears over the potential problems any breakdown in technology might cause with air traffic control being centralised away from the islands.
Cobb sought to offer reassurances on that front. In the case of Sumburgh Airport, he said, communications could go via fibre links to either Northern Europe or the UK mainland, while there are also backup fibre radio and copper wire options and “we would look to mimic that across all the different locations”.
He said HIAL was not a trailblazer in this area, with the technology having existed since 2015 and been used successfully at London City Airport with its “extremely complex aerodrome” and pointed out that the CAA has “no major safety concerns” regarding the plans.
Lamont finished Wednesday’s session by saying the committee would be inviting transport minister Michael Matheson to face questions, adding she looked forward to hearing responses to the islands impact assessment once it is published.
Meanwhile, a survey conducted by Shetland MSP Beatrice Wishart has shown a vast majority of islanders are opposed to the remote tower plans.
The Liberal Democrat MSP said that 92 per cent of the 550 constituents who responded to her survey, covering a number of issues, were against the removal of air traffic control capabilities from Sumburgh Airport.
“A clear issue that has been communicated to me is the strong local opposition to what is happening with HIAL centralising its air traffic control in Inverness,” Wishart said.
“£6 million has already been spent on a project which HIAL’s own consultants said was risky and costly, while a report last year from the Prospect Union estimated that £18million will be taken away from island communities.
“That is not good for Shetland and should be stopped. Serious and legitimate concerns, including the potential loss of highly skilled jobs from Shetland, have been raised repeatedly but HIAL is intent on pressing ahead.
“We need to see the SNP Government listen to what island communities are saying and re-assess this project to find a better solution to modernising the Highlands and Islands air traffic network.”
A spokesperson for HIAL responded by saying: “We appreciate that a programme of this magnitude and complexity will bring significant change for people, not least our highly valued air traffic control colleagues.
“However, there are no alternative proposals for air traffic services that provide the all-encompassing solution of HIAL’s current Air Traffic Management Strategy (ATMS). Unless we modernise and move forward with it, we cannot guarantee air connectivity for the Highlands and Islands into the future.
“The ATMS aims to provide a foundation stone to address industry-wide structural deficits which, if left unaddressed, will compromise our lifeline activities and the airline customers that provide them.”
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