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Transport / Industrial action suspended while talks continue over HIAL air traffic control plans

Sumburgh Airport. Photo: HIAL

ALL industrial action from air traffic controllers in the Highlands and Islands has been suspended while talks continue over the future of services in the region.

Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd (HIAL) and the Prospect union announced this morning (Monday) that they have agreed a “framework for discussion” to establish a new way forward for the implementation of HIAL’s air traffic management strategy.

The strategy aimed to centralise air traffic control services across the Highlands and Islands – including at Sumburgh – to Inverness, but this provoked deep concern, particularly over the loss of jobs for island communities.

Prospect has now agreed to suspend all industrial action while talks continue.

Previously air traffic controllers did not work overtime as part of the action, which on occasion meant airline Loganair was unable to catch-up on delayed flights until the next morning.

Both parties have been engaged in discussions to seek a “mutually agreeable approach” for the modernisation of air traffic services at HIAL’s airports.

Talks are said to have been constructive with both HIAL and Prospect agreeing a middle ground to move the discussions forward.

The discussions will focus on:

  • The introduction of a surveillance programme across the HIAL network with surveillance services provided for Stornoway, Sumburgh, Kirkwall, Inverness, and Dundee airports from a combined surveillance centre in Inverness.
  • The phasing out of procedural air traffic control services and the adoption of more modern and widely used techniques, practiced globally.
  • Air traffic services being provided locally at Stornoway, Sumburgh, Kirkwall and Dundee for the duration of the surveillance programme, with air traffic control for Inverness being provided remotely from the combined surveillance centre.
  • A review of air traffic provision against a scope, agreed by HIAL and Prospect, to inform the next steps of the programme. The review to be undertaken at the end of the surveillance programme, or at five years, whichever is soonest.
  • It has been agreed that further separate talks will take place on air traffic services for Benbecula and Wick John O’Groats airports.

HIAL and Prospect said, however, that it is a considerable process and any proposal as a result will have significant cost, regulatory and governance hurdles to overcome.

HIAL managing director Inglis Lyon said: “This marks a significant and positive step. We are pleased that Prospect has suspended the industrial action.

“This will allow the discussions to move forward without further disruption to our passengers and airlines.

“This compromise will help both parties minimise the impact of the air traffic management programme on our communities and colleagues whilst continuing with key elements of the modernisation programme.

“Our airports provide lifeline and essential services and ensuring a safe and resilient air traffic management system that will future proof our airports remain our priority.

“The work we will undertake over the next few months will help us meet that objective.

“While there is much work to do before we have a final proposal, we are pleased with the progress that has been made.

“It is important that we have the time and space to continue these constructive talks and develop the proposal.”

David Avery, negotiation officer for Prospect, added:  “We welcome the decision of the HIAL board to work with their staff and communities to find a solution which not only delivers safety improvements but also protects local jobs and services.

“Prospect has always said that it wants to work with HIAL to come up with the best way to improve air traffic control services in the Highlands and Islands.

“This is a good step forward which we hope will eventually form the template for a safer and more effective ATMS while retaining most of the jobs and skills in remote communities.

“On behalf of members, I would like to thank everyone who has supported Prospect members’ campaign to bring about this new approach to air traffic services across HIAL.”

Shetland MSP Beatrice Wishart said: “I am sure the news will be welcomed by passengers especially as we face winter weather likely to cause delays.

“Centralisation of air traffic control services has been contentious from day one.

“HIAL and Scottish ministers should take this opportunity to listen to communities and reassess their thinking.”

A spokesperson for Loganair said the airline was “heartened to learn today of the suspension of industrial action at HIAL airports as part of the talks to resolve the dispute over modernisation of air traffic control services”.

“The work-to-rule has created an increasing and unwelcome level of disruption in recent weeks, and the suspension of this action will be warmly welcomed by our customers and our team alike,” they added.

“We trust that this is a decisive step along the road to reaching a long-term, lasting resolution to the dispute.”

SNP Highlands and Islands MSP Emma Roddick said: “I am delighted to hear that Prospect and HIAL have been able to come to an agreement regarding the future of the airports of the Highlands and Islands that respects the central role these airports play in the livelihoods of many people across the region.

“I have been urging HIAL since the start to listen to the concerns of its employees in their drive for modernisation and I am heartened to see this significant development in reaching a solution that guarantees no jobs are lost across our islands.”

The dispute previously saw Prospect members hold a one-day strike in July, which closed airports in the region.

But Prospect confirmed in September that there would be no further strike days as talks opened between the union and HIAL.