Report Highlights Serious Concerns With HIAL Remote Towers Plan

An independent report carried out for the trade union Prospect into the Highlands and Islands Airport Limited (HIAL) plan to relocate all air traffic controllers to a central location at Inverness, has shown that the likely costs and risks of the project have been hugely under-estimated by HIAL.

“The ATMS programme will have social and economic implications for communities across the region. The primary impact will come from the loss of high-quality jobs from remote communities and centralise the economic benefits in Inverness.”

The report was carried out by procurement expert Dave Watson and looked at the overall costs and risks of HIAL’s proposal. It also looked at the alternatives as well as the impact on local communities and the level of engagement.

The report raised the following questions about the HIAL Project:

  • Are the costings robust enough, with sufficient contingency for ‘scope creep’?
  • By opting for innovative and relatively new technology is there a risk of optimism bias. Has the shiny bright technology solution blinded the Board to simpler, more practical solutions?
  • Has the procurement process sufficiently listened to the users and other stakeholders?
  • Does a small organisation like HIAL have the capacity and capability to manage such a complex procurement?
  • Will the project be overly reliant on one or two suppliers with much higher technical expertise? Are those suppliers bearing enough of the risk?

HIAL is carrying out its own impact assessment but it states in the call for evidence that whatever the findings are it will be continuing with its plan to move to remote towers.

“Highland and Islands Airports Limited (HIAL) is a public corporation wholly owned by the Scottish Ministers. The public corporation operates and manages 11 Airports at Barra, Benbecula, Campbeltown, Dundee, Islay, Inverness, Kirkwall, Stornoway, Sumburgh, Tiree and Wick. HIAL’s airports are vital to the social and economic welfare of the areas they serve, but are loss-making, and are supported by subsidies from the Scottish Government.”

The key findings of Prospect’s independent report were:

  • The remote towers programme will take at least £18m of economic benefit from island economies
  • HIAL’s own scoping study identified the remote towers option as “the most difficult and risky to implement”.
  • HIAL have only published a redacted business case for the proposal. Implementation costs have already almost doubled to £33.5m with lifetime costs £70m higher than the status quo.
  • HIAL has failed to learn the lessons of an NAO report into IT procurement by the Scottish government with engagement and staff buy-in in particular well below optimal. 
  • Early adopters of new technology like HIAL, not only face a risk of functionality but also that the technology is quickly updated.
  • Safety and operational concerns have been raised including, the breakdown of data transmission systems, cyber-security, weather assessment, impact on human performance and managing the need for ratings for more than one tower in a single shift.
  • The scoping study took place pre-COVID and does not take into account any potential impact of the pandemic on the aviation industry as a whole.

The full report can be downloaded here.

“A Prospect survey of its members who work for HIAL showed that 94 per cent oppose the Remote Towers plan and that 82 per cent would be more likely to leave HIAL if it was implemented. On this basis, HIAL is creating a recruitment crisis instead of solving one”

David Avery, Prospect negotiator, said:

“From day one HIAL have presented this as a done deal with negligible consultation, even less transparency, and bad faith.

“Prospect and its members in HIAL are not against reasoned changes to the technology and the operating procedures of air traffic control in the Highlands and Islands but these plans are not fit for purpose.

“The plans will remove vital high value jobs from communities which can little afford to lose them, totalling at least £18m.

“It is beyond belief that HIAL continue to press on with these plans, backed by the Scottish government, when the risks and costs are so plain to see. And that’s before we take COVID-19 into account. The plans were already questionable but with the aviation industry in crisis the risks are even higher and must be rethought.

“If the Scottish Government and HIAL continue with the remote towers plans it will be remote communities that pay the price. It’s no wonder places like Shetland are looking into self-rule when their needs are paid so little regard.”

“the COVID-19 pandemic and other regulatory factors constitute a significant change in the operating environment on which the original Business Case was based. In these circumstances, the sensible approach would be to place a moratorium on the programme until a full, transparent programme review is undertaken.”

2 replies »

  1. This deeply worries me as all the talk and outcomes talk about ‘money’, I can’t find one mention of ‘SAFETY’, safety of passengers and crew. I also wonder how many pilots will abort a landing due to uncertainty of actual conditions on the runway???

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