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Condemnation by MSPs of HIALs Air Traffic Control Centralisation

‘a deck stacked from the start’


HIALs decision to relocate its air traffic control operations to one central place in Inverness and to downgrade 2 airports was raised during a member’s debate in the Scottish Parliament on Thursday 23rd of January.

The proposals by HIAL which are well underway have received a barrage of criticism from the public, from trade unions and from local politicians.

The debate yesterday was brought to the Scottish Parliament by LibDem MSP for Shetland Beatrice Wishart.

Beatrice Wishart began the debate reminding MSPs and members of the public that HIAL was ‘100% owned by the Scottish Government.’

Concerns at the plans with many condemning them came from across the chamber.

Rhoda GrantReferring to the proposals by HIAL as a ‘vanity project’. Local MSP Rhoda Grant, Labour, said:

“I have been speaking to Air Traffic Controllers for some years now about this proposal. The overwhelming feeling from staff currently employed is that most of them are wholeheartedly against the centralisation plan, but clauses in the contracts of new staff over the last couple of years have made provision for relocation from local airfields to Inverness in the future showing that the decision was taken some time ago without proper consultation, or an Islands Impact Assessment.

“We are being told that an Islands Impact Assessment will be done, but the contract is already out to tender. Benbecula and Wick are already being downgraded. The decision has been made and they are treating this as a tick box exercise, it’s a farce.

“Staff have put forward alternative proposals for safe and cost effective modernisation which retains local skills, jobs and infrastructure, but there is no evidence that these have ever been considered.

“HIAL invested time and money recruiting and training local staff; people vested in their communities who wanted to live there. They are now throwing that away – a slap in the face to the communities they purport to serve. Staff who have invested their hearts and souls in local communities are now being forced to consider moving for employment and give up their homes. The personal cost is already proving too much.”

“Everyone who lives on these islands, and in the remote parts of Scotland, knows the problems of poor internet, electricity and communication infrastructures. For remote towers to work there needs very reliable digital connectivity.  Normally four separate connections to provide security. This reality is that in some of these airports there is not one adequate digital link, far less four independent ones.”

Michael MathesonThe Transport Secretary in the Scottish Government, Michael Matheson, stated that:

‘provision of air traffic control services is changing across the world. There is an unprecedented demand for controllers and a move from traditional practices to more modern working, including digital working.’

He said that for airports to operate in the modern world that they must adapt if they wish to have a future.

Michael Matheson said:

“The current practice of HIAL will not meet future operational or regulatory requirements, the current infrastructure is not suited to modern working and the current arrangements have weaknesses that ensure that there are challenges in terms of the reliability and sustainability of services, going forward.”

He referred to the report produced for HIAL by Helios ‘a specialist independent consultancy that works with airports around the world on such issues’  and he said:

“The remote towers and centralised surveillance option, in conjunction with controlled air space, was recommended by Helios as the most appropriate for HIAL and the best suited to HIAL’s multi-airport structure and particular needs.”

He went on to speak of the ‘significant progress’ which had been made with the project and that ‘over the past two years, engagement has taken place with elected members, interested parties, airline operators and the Civil Aviation Authority.’

Orkney constituency MSP Liam McArthur has described the project as a  ‘deck stacked from the start.’

Liam McArthur said:

“It is hard to escape the conclusion that the deck was stacked in favour of the ‘remote tower’ model from the start. HIAL has been determined to pursue this centralisation from the get go, despite their own consultants identifying it as the most risky and costly option.

“All the talk of consultation counts for little if no account is taken of the concerns being raised by ATC staff and other stakeholders. It also calls into question the value of any island impact assessment that HIAL might do on plans they intend taking forward in any event.

“Modernisation of air traffic control services is not in dispute. This needs to happen. However, unless HIAL find a way of convincing their staff, not only will their centralisation plans be undeliverable but current lifeline services will be under threat.

“That is a risk that island and rural communities cannot afford.  It is a risk that Ministers need to take seriously, not least given their obligations under the Islands Act.”

He called for a halt to the implementation of the plans.

An islands impact assessment is to take place which is extremely poor planning for surely that should have been done at the start of the process not when it is so far under way. The impact assessment is necessary due to the passing of the Islands Act.

You can watch the whole debate here:

Reporter: Fiona Grahame

Benbecula airport by David Martin

Control tower and apron, Benbecula Airport by David Martin

Related articles:

HIAL: Where is the accountability to the public when there has been no consultation ? 

Closure of Air Traffic Control Towers Puts Vital Air Services At Risk

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