The comments came after HIAL – which is owned by Scottish Ministers – published the final report findings of its retrospective Impact Assessment into the proposals last Friday.
HIAL said in a statement that the report had been undertaken to assess the economic and community impact of its Air Traffic Management Strategy (ATMS) and to explore the potential impacts of the strategy on local communities.
The strategy will introduce, HIAL said, remote integrated air traffic control services for five airports – Inverness, Dundee, Stornoway, Kirkwall and Sumburgh – run from a ‘Combined Surveillance Centre’ located in Inverness.
Additionally, Benbecula and Wick John O’Groats airports, under the strategy would see changes in the way their air traffic management is delivered.
HIAL concluded that the report “makes clear that the status quo for the airports is not sustainable”.
But since publication, HIAL has faced a barrage of calls for the plans to be halted with the local authority in the Western Isles, along with the islands’ MP and MSP highlighting potential negative impacts for island economies and jobs in the report’s findings.
HIAL chair Lorna Jack said: “The commissioning of the report demonstrates our commitment to listen and do everything we possibly can to mitigate any impacts. We want to work with colleagues and communities to find practical solutions.
“We appreciate that a programme of this magnitude and complexity will bring significant change for people in our communities, including our highly-valued air traffic control colleagues.
“However, standing still is not an option – we must modernise. ATMS is 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.”
HIAL also said in its statement that it had put forward “numerous initiatives” aimed at making the transition “as manageable as possible”, and said that its Board had accepted “the potential impacts on local employment and economies” and agreed with the further recommendations in the report to explore “where HIAL’s operations can create more economic activity for island communities”.
HIAL’s statement added that it intends “to commission an independent study to identify where that can be done, specifically for Lewis, Orkney, Shetland and Uist”.
HIAL managing director Inglis Lyon, said: “We have always known there would be impacts by undertaking such a significant and complex change management programme.
“To date, there have been no alternative proposals that provide a solution that fully addresses all of the challenges HIAL currently faces.
“We hope that everyone with a vested interest in the long-term future of air traffic services in the Highlands and Islands will work us to deliver viable solutions that will maintain lifeline services and essential connectivity for generations to come.”
A Transport Scotland spokesman said: “We recognise the need to modernise Air Traffic Control to ensure more sustainable and reliable air services in the Highlands and Islands.
“No alternative has been proposed which addresses the issues that the project aims to resolve.
“We urge HIAL’s staff to continue to play a constructive role as implementation of the project progresses.”
But Cllr Uisdean Robertson, Chair of Comhairle nan Eilean Siar’s Transport and Infrastructure Committee said HIAL’s report “shows in black and white” that HIAL’s ATMS “will not only rob us of jobs but will cause damage to our Island economies to an extent that is unthinkable from a company owned by Scottish Government ministers”.
Cllr Robertson added: “For HIAL to now come out and say that they knew all along that the project will have severe negative consequences on the Island communities it is supposed to serve is just plainly incredulous.
“Not content with this, they are now asking that staff members and local authorities work with them to sort out the mess which they have created. “…It seems that no matter how many times HIAL's short-sightedness is pointed out to them they are determined to push ahead with this unnecessary project and are more than happy to leave a trail of destruction in their path.”
“HIAL already have the foundation on which to build and future proof resilient air traffic services right here in the Western Isles.”
Cllr Robertson concluded, “However, rather than take the much simpler and less costly option of investing in the Western Isles, and living up to their own mission statement, HIAL has instead now shown that there is nothing that will stop them from squandering tax payers' money as they needlessly pursue a flawed strategy.”
Western Isles MSP, Alasdair Allan, said: “This is an issue I have continued to raise with HIAL and the Government since the proposals were first mooted a number of years ago. While I, and almost every ATCO I’ve spoken to on this subject, acknowledge the need for the modernisation of air traffic management, I believe there are far better options to pursue than what is currently being put forward by HIAL.
“The impact assessment confirms that these proposals will have a range of significant negative impacts for Lewis and Uist. HIAL should rethink these plans and put forward a form of modernisation that keeps jobs on the islands.”
Angus MacNeil, MP for the Western Isles said that he had written to Scottish Government Finance Secretary Kate Forbes and the Auditor General for Scotland, asking them to look into the proposals.
Mr MacNeil said: “Currently our airports provide excellent local jobs with no issues of staff retention, particularly when local staff are recruited, in both Stornoway and Benbecula. The money that HIAL have wasted so far could have upgraded all our airports and secured these jobs with a lot less ongoing cost to the public purse.
“Islands will be particularly impacted with a loss of high-quality jobs in the community if the high-cost alternative of centralising in Inverness were to go ahead. Our fragile islands will lose population, this is surely not something that Scottish Government Ministers will sit back and let happen, playing Pontius Pilate is not a responsible option where fragile communities are concerned.
“If HIAL don’t drop these plans”, Mr MacNeil concluded: “Audit Scotland needs to investigate at least two alternatives that are cheaper than HIAL’s pet project and which would keep jobs on the islands. However, hopefully these plans will be consigned to the dustbin of history and our communities can breathe a sigh of relief, with the government saving many millions annually in the process.”
David Avery, Negotiations Officer of Air Traffic staff union, Prospect, called for the ATMS project to be halted. He said: “The long-overdue Island Impact Assessment has now been published and shows what staff have been warning since the start of this project; that significant and unmitigable damage will be inflicted on island communities.
“The report is absolutely damning in its assessment of the damage this project will cause. Centralisation remains the most expensive and most economically damaging option and yet HIAL are determined to continue with it.
“The proposal of yet another independent study on generating further economic activity falls far short of what is required here. HIAL should immediately pause this project and commission a genuinely independent report considering the feasibility of an alternative localised model, if they refuse to do so then the Scottish Government must step in.
Mr Avery concluded: “The report also confirms Prospects’ own survey which found that staff in island communities will not relocate to Inverness. HIAL need to explain how they intend to live up to their promise of no compulsory redundancies as all evidence suggests that widespread redundancies now seem inevitable.”