Air services

‘Staggering’ cuts to Highlands and Islands air service suspended after safety fears

A state-controlled airport company has scrapped plans to centralize some of its air traffic control operations following security fears.

Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd (Hial) intended to move air traffic works to a ‘remote site’ in Inverness which raised concerns at the Prospect union that public safety was at risk.

Proposals for a single remote tower center – which would be a first in the UK – were first mooted four years ago as part of HIAL’s plans to ‘future proof’ its operations with an estimated investment of £28 million over the next ten to 15 years.

The union also raised concerns that it would put nearly 59 jobs at risk. HIAL said the plan is no longer part of its air traffic control modernization proposal.

A separate air traffic services decommissioning plan for Benbecula and Wick John O’Groats airports is also to be considered.

HIAL will need to prepare a new business case to present to Transport Scotland for approval.

Under HIAL’s original plan, air traffic control for Inverness, Sumburgh in Shetland, Dundee, Kirkwall in Orkney and Stornoway in the Western Isles would be centrally controlled.

Unmanned towers would provide information to a hub in Inverness.

It has been claimed this will involve the removal of seven existing towers in Inverness, Dundee, Shetland, Orkney, Wick, Benbecula and Stornoway.

Prospect, who represents air traffic control staff at HIAL airports, said the ‘breathtaking’ plans to move air traffic control to Inverness would cut skilled jobs and around £1.5million in jobs direct to rural and island economies and would “run counter” to the recently published Islands Plan produced by the Scottish Government, owner of HIAL.

Following discussions with Prospect, HIAL offered to control radar traffic centrally, but with local air traffic control remaining in place to have visual contact with aircraft.

The original plan involved unmanned towers providing information to the Inverness hub.

HIAL President Lorna Jack said HIAL listened to staff and island communities in making its decision.

HeraldScotland:

She added: “His alternative delivery of the ATMS program will improve the safety and resilience of our operations and keep air traffic controllers on the islands.

“While this sets the future strategic direction of the programme, the board recognizes that further work will be required with colleagues before a full business case can be presented to Transport Scotland. This will include a review of our impact assessment on the island.

Inglis Lyon, Managing Director of HIAL, said, “We were delighted to note Prospect’s encouraging comments on the constructive working relationships that have been developed through the staff working groups.

“We look forward to continuing this positive approach with Prospect and our colleagues as we enter the next phase of detailed operational design.

“We hope the Council’s decision will put an end to the ongoing industrial action and allow us to move forward together towards our fundamental goal – a modern and sustainable air traffic service for the Highlands and Islands.”