News / HIAL air traffic modernisation project cancelled – after spend reaches nearly £10m

Airport organisation says the investment will continue to benefit operations – but campaigner says HIAL’s reputation is in ‘tatters’

Sumburgh Airport. Photo: HIAL

AFTER MILLIONS of pounds were spent on plans to modernise air traffic control services, Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd (HIAL) is back at square one – with the status quo set to remain.

The total capital and revenue spend attributed to HIAL’s ATMS (air traffic management strategy) project stood at nearly £10 million at the end of August.

But the programme has now effectively been closed down because of financial constraints at the Scottish Government, which owns and funds HIAL.

A campaigner against the project who used to work for HIAL in air traffic control (ATC) claimed the organisation’s board has a “proven track record of wasting public money”.

Peter Henderson added that the controversial air traffic control project was an “unnecessary vanity project”.

However, a spokesperson for HIAL said: “A significant proportion of the spend [on ATMS] includes financial investment and assets which are currently benefitting organisational operations and will continue to do so.


“As the ATMS programme has been formally closed the required accounting processes will be undertaken to reconcile the costs solely associated with the project and those which constitute financial investment and assets for business-as-usual operations.”

Last month HIAL announced it was scaling back its ATC plans as the Scottish Government tightened its budgets – but it did not give full details at the time.

These are plans which had already been cut back when the controversial proposal to run air traffic control for airports like Sumburgh remotely in Inverness was canned following talks with unions, keeping jobs in local areas.

But there is now confirmation that HIAL is no longer going ahead with any of its modernisation proposals, which first began life back in 2018.

Locally this means that plans to take the Sumburgh radar approach service in-house have been shelved, with the contract due to stay with current provider NATS.

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For the operation of Sumburgh Airport it essentially means nothing will change.

A freedom of information request from Shetland News revealed that at the end of August the total cost attributed to the ATMS project stood at around £9.7 million.

This includes £2.6 million on the three-storey New Century House office building in Inverness and more than £2.5 million on project team staff costs.

HIAL had also spent more than £320,000 on an air traffic simulator and associated costs.

The total figure does include, however, the cost of air traffic controllers who are “supporting business as usual operations”.

The decision to stop the project means a proposed combined surveillance centre, which would have offered back-up facilities for airports in the region, is no longer going ahead.

A HIAL spokesperson said New Century House remains a “valuable estate asset for HIAL, which will be included in our planned strategic property review”.


It comes after HIAL chair Lorna Jack said in 2021 that “standing still is not an option – we must modernise”.

She said at the time that the ATMS project was the “only option that provides the necessary levels of resilience required to ensure long-term sustainable air traffic service provision for the communities we serve”.

But Henderson, who co-organised a petition against the ATMS project which was heard in parliament said the status quo has “turned out to be the only option”.

“There is nothing left of the ATMS and centralised surveillance project except for New Century House, an unused radar room at Inverness Airport and HIAL’s tattered reputation,” he told Shetland News.

“The methods of ATC used at HIAL airports are the same now as they were before HIAL embarked on their unnecessary vanity project.”


The campaigner added that he was told ATMS staff are being redeployed elsewhere.

His prediction is that each air traffic control airport will get a monitor which shows transponding aircraft in its vicinity.

“It is a relatively inexpensive and useful safety aid that should have been introduced years ago,” Henderson said.

Shetland MSP Beatrice Wishart. Photo: Shetland News

The petition which went to parliament, which also involved former Benbecula councillor Alasdair MacEachen and ex-HIAL employee Josh Doig, claimed the ATMS plans would not deliver a “sustainable and cost-effective service”.

Meanwhile Shetland MSP Beatrice Wishart said HIAL and the Scottish Government “need to be transparent and provide full and detailed figures of this project and its now junked proposals”.

“I hope that every penny of the over £9 million of public cash is being put to workable use,” she continued.

“The Scottish Government, who wholly own HIAL, rushed into plans for centralisation of air traffic control.


“Many voices warned that their plans for remote towers, and moving jobs out of the islands, was unworkable.

“The recent breakages to subsea cables demonstrates the communication fragility that the remote towers project was built on.”

HIAL chair Jack said last month after the Scottish Government outlined financial challenges from the cost of living crisis: “Our overriding focus is to deliver safe, reliable, and sustainable aviation services for the communities we serve.

“Like many other businesses, HIAL must reappraise priorities and spending options and make difficult decisions based on the extraordinary circumstances we are all facing as global economic pressures impact our day-to-day activities and our future plans.

“The board is considering several options to help address the current fiscal position and decided one of the options will be to scale back air traffic modernisation plans for the duration of the strategic spending review.


“This aligns with the five-year review agreed with the trade unions in January this year.”

HIAL said indicative budgets from the Scottish Government show a decrease in available funding over the next three to four years and present a “significant future funding challenge” for the company – prompting an internal spending review at the organisation.

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