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Transport / Cross-party politicians and council leaders write to government over HIAL air traffic control plans

HIAL employs 55 air traffic controllers.

A CROSS party group of MSPs, MPs, council leaders, community members and trade unionists has written to the Scottish Government demanding engagement on the thorny issue of the future of air traffic control in the Highlands and Islands.

Signatories on the letter includes Shetland Islands Council leader Steven Coutts, local MSP Beatrice Wishart and Northern Isles MP Alistair Carmichael.

It revolves around Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd’s (HIAL) divisive plans to centralise air traffic control in Inverness using remote towers, which would see a number of jobs at Sumburgh Airport relocate south.

The Prospect union said the Scottish Government, which owns HIAL “has the power to overrule the plans” but has so far refused to meet the communities affected.

A spokesperson for the union added that “under extreme pressure” the Scottish Government had “finally offered a meeting with the minister more than two months from now”.

Meanwhile the cross-party letter said: “This decision impacts some of the most precarious communities in Scotland, it comes at a time when the Scottish Government is consulting on providing direct financial support to families to relocate to these communities.

“We are concerned that HIAL’s plan would directly undermine the stated policy object of the Scottish Government to encourage people with valuable skills and good jobs to move to the Highlands and Islands.

“We are further concerned that the way in which HIAL has pursued this project risks undermining the integrity of the Islands Act.”

Prospect negotiator David Avery said the letter “demonstrates the strength of feeling about HIAL’s ill-considered plans to remove high value jobs from the communities they serve”.

In late July a one-day strike was held by air traffic controllers in the region, temporarily closing Sumburgh and five other airports.

HIAL has repeatedly defended its plans as a safe way to deliver air traffic services in the future via a “long-term, sustainable solution to address underlying structural air traffic control issues, as well as staff retention and recruitment challenges across many locations”.

Its managing director Inglis Lyon previously said: “Our air traffic controllers are highly-valued colleagues and we will work closely with them as we go through a period of significant change and necessary modernisation in the way air traffic management is delivered.”

Meanwhile Shetland Islands Council’s transport committee chairman Ryan Thomson said he believes island representatives on boards that serve the Highlands and Islands would be a “huge step forward” – a view that was echoed by Shetland MSP Wishart during a debate in parliament this week.

“It is important that the services working for rural and island communities includes representation by those they serve. Without understanding the socio-economic complexities of those communities decisions will not fill local needs,” she said.

“I have long opposed HIAL centralisation. I would hope that dedicated local representation on the HIAL board would have stopped proposals reaching the stage they are at now.”

Responding to similar concerns earlier this year, transport minister Michael Matheson said it is “not appropriate to limit the candidate pool for board membership by imposing requirements for where candidates come from”.