Western Isles MSP, Alasdair Allan, has said that he believes there are “less drastic options” open to airports operator, Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd (HIAL), than the planned centralisation of air traffic management systems in Inverness.
The MSP’s comments come after HIAL last week confirmed a decision to relocate air traffic management systems for five Scottish regional airports in the Highlands and islands, including Stornoway, to a new ‘combined surveillance centre’ in the Highland capital, and to downgrade the systems at Benbecula and Wick airports.
Under the plan, unstaffed control towers at the airports would relay information to the new centre from advanced camera technology based at HIAL’s airports.
HIAL said that the move was “the largest and most complex project” the company had undertaken.
They explained that staff and unions, airport managers and senior HIAL personnel “had been involved throughout the process”.
But local authority, Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, criticised the decision raising concerns that HIAL’s plans could see 20 highly skilled jobs removed from the islands, and could reduce the resilience of the air traffic control system for the island’s airports.
Alasdair Allan MSP said on Tuesday that since the announcement he had been contacted by “a significant number” of the Air Traffic Controllers based in Stornoway and Benbecula.
He stated: “I appreciate the deep concerns they have over these proposals; not just because of the direct impact on their employment, but also the potential impact on the islands by the removal of highly skilled jobs.
“This is an issue I have continued to raise with HIAL and the Government on behalf of the workforce since the proposals were first mooted just over two 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 less drastic options to pursue than are currently being put forward by HIAL.”
Earlier on Tuesday, the decision by HIAL – a public company wholly owned by Scottish Ministers – also came under fire from MSPs in the Scottish Parliament during its Topical Questions session.
Orkney MSP, Liam McArthur, asked Michael Matheson MSP, the Cabinet Secretary for Transport , Infrastructure and Connectivity, what discussions the Scottish Government had held with HIAL over the decision?
The Cabinet Secretary stated in response: “The Scottish Government has regular discussions with HIAL about how best to ensure a long-term sustainable future for air services in the Highlands and Islands.
“The decision was made and announced by HIAL early in 2018 to modernise air traffic control, a key feature of which was to establish a central surveillance centre rather than retaining individual towers at each airport.
“That decision – which is one part of a wider programme – was based on an independent analysis of the different options available and careful consideration by HIAL and its board.
“Both the Scottish Government and HIAL are clear, the Cabinet Secretary stated, “that this is a major change, both technically and personally, for the staff involved, and its success will depend upon continued engagement with staff, airlines and the Civil Aviation Authority.
“Forthcoming regulatory changes and the general shift in the industry away from more traditional air traffic control procedures mean that doing nothing is not an option.
“The option chosen by HIAL, after very careful consideration, embraces new technology, future proofs operations, improves safety and will benefit the communities served by the airports involved.”
But Liam McArthur pressed the Cabinet Secretary on the options considered by HIAL.
He said that the option to operate air traffic services across the Highlands and Islands via a remote tower in Inverness was identified by HIAL’s independent consultants, Helios, as “the riskiest and costliest option” open to the airpoirt operator.
He highlighted that the consultants had identified “alternative options that would achieve the much-needed modernisation at a fraction of the cost or risk”.
“Despite that”, the Mr McArthur continued, “HIAL has spent more than two years ploughing ahead while ignoring the serious concerns that have been voiced by its own staff”.
He called on the Cabinet secretary “to call a halt” to the plans “to enable a proper islands impact assessment to be carried out, given the significant implication of these plans for lifeline air services and employment in our three main island communities”.
Mr Matheson replied: “The priority for HIAL was to make sure that it chose the best option in order to help to sustain and support the modernisation of air traffic control services at HIAL airports.
“Any new approach that is taken to the delivery of air traffic control services at HIAL airports will have to be approved by the Civil Aviation Authority, which is the safety expert in assessing these matters and the regulator that will have to consider any changes that are introduced by HIAL.
“On Mr McArthur’s wider reference to employment and the island communities, key aspects of making the necessary changes to air traffic control are recognising the regulatory changes that are taking place and addressing issues of resilience at the existing facilities, which will have controlled airspace.
“The new centralised surveillance model will provide a greater level of resilience than we currently have, or would be provided in any of the other models that were considered.”
The Cabinet Secretary stated: “I confirm that HIAL intends to undertake an island impact assessment in line with the legislation – the Islands (Scotland) Act 2018 – in the coming months.”