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Community / HIAL needs to do more to help staff affected by remote tower move, impact study recommends

Sumburgh airport in November with fixed wing and rotary aircraft lining up to handle the growing oil-related passenger traffic.

PLANS to centralise air traffic control at Inverness with the potential loss of at least 17 well-paid full-time equivalent (FTE) jobs at Sumburgh Airport with a total gross salary of £670,000 will have a “very significant impact” on Shetland’s economy, an independent islands’ impact assessment has found.

Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd (HIAL) has been told to do more than originally planned to help cushion the blow for island communities in Shetland, Orkney and the Western Isles.

The long awaited islands impact assessment, commissioned by HIAL after the decision to move air traffic control services to a remote centre in Inverness, was published on Friday morning.

Scottish Government owned HIAL vowed to press ahead with the controversial changes, saying the status quo was not an option.

The alternative proposal to introduce a “local surveillance alternative” at islands airports has been dismissed by HIAL as too expensive and less resilient due to the need to attract significantly more local air traffic management staff.

Introducing this alternative at Sumburgh would have the potential to provide a further 20 FTE jobs at the airport, the impact assessment, compiled by Reference Economic Consultants, said.

In relation to Sumburgh Airport being downgraded the report summarises the economic impact as follows:

  • Net reduction in employment at Sumburgh airport from ATMS compared to the local surveillance alternative, and also compared to the existing position;
  • A concentration of affected households in one part of Shetland;
  • Potential loss of population, with the number of households that would leave Shetland presently uncertain.

“It is not certain that HIAL’s proposed mitigations could fully address the potential impacts on local employment and possible loss of population,” the report authors said.

“HIAL should commission an independent report which would identify ways in which HIAL’s operations can create more economic activity in the communities they serve. This is an overarching recommendation that also covers Lewis, Orkney and Uist.”

Sumburgh Airport is the second busiest airport in HIAL’s network. Between April 2019 and March there were 6,212 scheduled aircraft movements at the airport, and 12,58 unscheduled.

The central air traffic surveillance centre in Inverness is currently forecast to come into operation in March 2024.

HIAL said that its board had accepted the potential impacts on local employment and economies and agreed with the further recommendations to explore where HIAL’s operations can create more economic activity for island communities.

It said it also intends to commission an independent study to identify where that can be done, specifically, for Lewis, Orkney, Shetland and Uist.

Managing director Inglis Lyon said: “We have always known there would be impacts by undertaking such a significant and complex change management programme.

“To date, there have been no alternative proposals that provide a solution that fully addresses all of the challenges HIAL currently faces.”

HIAL has written to all relevant local authorities to request meetings and has offered to work together with stakeholders to identify where it can contribute further to local economies.

The islands impact assessment can be found on the HIAL website at https://www.hial.co.uk/hial-group/air-traffic-management-strategy/impact-assessment/

Scottish Parliament election, 6 May 2021