The managing director and board members of Highlands & Islands Airports Ltd are responsible for the running of 11 airports.
What they need to remember is that the airports belong to the communities they serve. Our communities.
Our airports are vital to all of us, in many different ways. If we become seriously ill or are severely injured we have to be flown out by air ambulance because our medical facilities are limited. Being referred to a medical consultant means that either they fly to see us or we fly to see them.
Business trips, family visits, holidays, trips to sporting events, they are all quicker and easier by air than by ferry and road.
We accept that severe weather causes delays and many of us build in an extra day for travel to take account of that. We also accept, (grudgingly, perhaps), that aircraft sometimes break down. They are machines after all, no machine is 100% reliable.
We accept all that, and more, as part of living in a remote community.
What we should never accept is a taxpayer funded plan that will inevitably cause us to suffer more difficulties in our daily lives. We have enough problems already, we don’t need more.
Highlands & Islands Airports Ltd are trying to force through a project that will inevitably cause problems.
They call it their Air Traffic Management Strategy (ATMS).
All air traffic control staff will be removed from their airports and relocated to Inverness. Camera systems will be put at the airports so that air traffic controllers can do their job from a building in Inverness rather than being on the actual airport.
HIAL claim it will solve all of their perceived problems with providing air traffic control at our airports.
MPs, MSP’s, local councillors and community councillors of all political persuasions have joined together to condemn HIAL’s project. They can see the problems with it. They have requested that the HIAL board and its managing director think again. The requests have been ignored.
HIAL’s own staff have tried to point out the problems associated with the project. They too have been ignored.
HIAL’s answer to any objection is that the Air Traffic Management Strategy is the only solution to their problems.
It is not.
The arguments are both complex and technical. If you want to learn more about them I suggest you visit the Scottish Parliament Petitions Committee website and view the evidence available there. Link Below:
Or watch the Scottish Parliament Petitions Committee meetings on Scottish Parliament TV.
HIAL also have a section for the Air Traffic Management Strategy on their website which attempts to explain their views.
The shorter version of the arguments are as follows:
HIAL say they can’t recruit and retain air traffic controllers at their remote airports. They somehow seem to think putting them all in Inverness to control the airports from there is the only solution.
Everyone else says recruiting people from the areas around our airports and training them from scratch to become air traffic controllers means they will remain working at their airport until they retire. This has been proved to be the case but HIAL management rarely do this as they see it as expensive.
Everyone else also points out that the majority of air traffic control staff currently working at HIAL’s airports want to stay where they are and see no advantage in moving their jobs to Inverness. Local councils have even offered to help HIAL with local staff recruitment to ensure future vacancies are filled.
Inverness Airport has staffing problems at the moment, which suggests that Inverness is not an attractive place for air traffic controllers to work.
Ninety-five per cent of air traffic control staff working at HIAL’s other airports do not want to move there and would rather stay where they are or leave the company to work for someone else than forced to move.
It is worth pointing out that moving to Inverness to work at the new air traffic control centre means a significant pay increase yet staff would rather stay where they are. They don’t believe that what HIAL are doing is the best way forward.
HIAL say that they have to comply with future changes in legislation that will mean that they have to introduce controlled airspace at their air traffic control airports.
Not true. Angus MacNeil, MP for Na h-Eileanan an Iar, submitted a written question to the Secretary of State for Transport asking whether his department has any plans to mandate controlled airspace at air traffic control airports.
The reply he got was that the government has no such plans.
HIAL say that their plans will not affect the safety and reliability of their services.
Not true either. HIAL plan to remove the current air traffic control service from Benbecula and Wick. They want to replace it with a flight information service. This is a downgrade of safety, nothing less.
An air traffic control service pro-actively separates aircraft from each other. A flight information service doesn’t. It can only provide information and advice to pilots. It is up to the pilots to keep themselves separate from each other.
HIAL recently stated to the CAA [Civil Aviation Authority] that at Campbeltown, Islay, Tiree and Barra, which are all flight information service airports”
“Pilots are utilising the RNAV/GNSS procedures without unit contact or approval, often resulting in instances of airborne conflict with IFR scheduled traffic and at significant risk to either party.”
In layman’s terms, aircraft are getting too close to each other and might hit each other.
Doesn’t sound safe to me.
As to removing air traffic controllers from all the airports, putting them all in Inverness and using cameras to see what is going on at the airports, how can that be as safe and reliable?
The more layers of technology in a system, the more failure points there are.
Instead of a real life view of their airports they will have to rely on cameras, computers, and hundreds of miles of communications links to see the airport on a wall of video screens. Instead of a 360 degree real world view the screens are arranged in a 160 degree view so what you see on the furthest right and furthest left screen is actually what is behind you.
Air traffic controllers from HIAL were sent to see these systems in action in Sweden and came away unimpressed. An aircraft the size of a Boeing 737 (which has 200 seats) could not be seen on the screens until it was three miles away from the cameras. We can see 10-seat Islander aircraft 15 miles or more away using just our eyes when looking out from our control towers.
The controllers raised their legitimate professional safety concerns with HIAL management. Their concerns were dismissed as just being their opinion.
HIAL’s future intention is to have one controller using this system to control what is happening at three different airports at the same time. Is that safe? No other airport has done this yet.
Finally we come to the Islands (Scotland) Act 2018, a piece of legislation that was meant to protect us from just such a project as HIAL’s ATMS plan.
Turns out it doesn’t.
The Islands Impact Assessment so grudgingly commissioned by HIAL was alarming in its conclusions.
It says that HIAL’s Air Traffic Management Strategy will have a significant negative impact on the communities affected.
Jobs will be lost, money will taken out of the local economy, there will be a very significant negative Impact if the resilience of air traffic services is lower than it currently is.
HIAL and the transport minister say they are going ahead anyway.
To them, the Islands Act has no relevance.
If we are lucky they say they might give us a few office jobs in exchange for the loss of many more better paid, highly skilled careers that should be kept where they are.
No wonder Shetland Islands Council is considering financial and political self-determination.
The HIAL management and board of directors are either unwilling or unable to look again at their plans for air traffic management despite three years of pressure to do so.
The Air Traffic Management Strategy (ATMS) has been the source of disharmony, discord, depression and despair both within HIAL and outside of it.
The HIAL board and managing director say it is a change management project. On this I agree with them.
It is time to change the management.
They should all resign. Now.
We need people who are willing to listen to and work with us to improve our communities and the air links they rely on, not people who ignore us.
Former Air Traffic Operations Assistant at Kirkwall ATC