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Politics / Politicians urge government to intervene in escalating air traffic control dispute

Shetland MSP Beatrice Wishart and Highlands and Islands Green MSP Ariane Burgess.

SHETLAND MSP Beatrice Wishart is urging Scottish ministers to “think again” and intervene in the industrial dispute between government owned Highlands and Islands Airport Limited (HIAL) and the Prospect union.

Air traffic controllers are set to strike next Thursday across a number of airports in the region, including Sumburgh and Kirkwall, in a long running and escalating dispute over plans to operate air traffic control services remotely from Inverness.

Loganair has already cancelled all flights at the affected airports, and is offering passengers the chance to book a place on extra flights around the strike date of 29 July.

Plans to centralise air traffic services in Inverness is set to become a reality by 2023/24.

It would remove up to 17 full-time equivalent air traffic control jobs from Shetland, according to a recently carried out impact assessment study. A similar impact has been calculated for Kirkwall and Stornoway.

Local communities, including island councils, have been voicing their opposition to the plans since they first emerged more than three years ago.

“I had hoped that the Scottish Government would be encouraged to take the time to listen to local communities when the proposed strike was raised but instead it has allowed it to come to this,” Lib Dem MSP Wishart said.

“The inflexibility of the Scottish Government means that many islanders will be inconvenienced including travellers due to go to hospital appointments.

“Ministers must stop the project and think again.”

And, referring to a spat on Twitter between Scottish transport secretary Michael Matheson and rail company LNER over social distancing on trains between Scotland and England, The Lib Dems interim Scottish leader, Northern Isles MP Alistair Carmichael, advised the minister to focus on the day job or resign.

“If Michael Matheson were as eager to do the day job as he is to pick fights with train companies on Twitter then we might not have quite so many ongoing transport crises on land, sea and air,” Carmichael said.

“From his boneheaded refusal to change course on plans to strip air traffic jobs out of the isles to the never-ending ferry fiascos, Mr Matheson would do better to quit tweeting – or just quit, full stop.

Meanwhile, the Scottish Greens have come out in support of air traffic controllers, calling on the government to reconsider the centralisation proposals.

Green MSP for the Highlands and Islands Ariane Burgess said: “HIAL’s air traffic controllers play a vital role in allowing lifeline flights to service remote, rural and island communities throughout the Highlands and Islands.

“The unique role performed by these skilled workers hasn’t always been appreciated by Ministers in Edinburgh or officials sitting round a boardroom in Inverness. That needs to change.

“Losing these skilled jobs would be devastating for fragile local economies. So, I’d ask the Scottish Government to urgently reconsider these proposals, and commit to protecting valuable skilled jobs throughout the region.”

Speaking after the strike was announced by Prospect, HIAL managing director Inglis Lyon said the action will “inflict additional disruption and inconvenience on passengers at such a crucial time for the communities of the Highlands and Islands”.

“It will also have an impact on the aviation sector which serves them and which is seeking to get back on its feet following the worst of the pandemic,” he added.

“We will work closely with our airline partners to keep disruption to a minimum and apologise for the undoubted inconvenience this action will cause.”

HIAL says its air traffic management strategy will modernise its service by improving resilience, enhancing safety and easing “staff recruitment and retention issues”.