Petitions Committee Hears ‘Troubling Evidence Session’ Against HIAL’s Remote Towers

John Doig and Peter Henderson, gave a well informed and powerful presentation of evidence of their petition against HIAL’s remote towers project.

Representing the Benbecula community, they appeared (virtually) before the Public Petitions Committee of the Scottish Parliament on Thursday 1st of October.

Calling on the Scottish Parliament to urge the Scottish Government to halt Highlands & Islands Airports Ltd’s Air Traffic Management Strategy Project to conduct an independent assessment of the decisions and decision-making process of the ATMS project.

John Doig and Peter Henderson impressed the committee with their clear answers which highlighted the concerns about safety and also the loss of jobs if HIALs project goes ahead.

What also came out of the evidence session was the complete lack of an Islands Assessment on the impact of centralising the project in Inverness. An Islands Assessment is a requirement of the Islands Act.

The two petitioners explained that the services provided in the islands are both commercial and lifeline ones. The complex weather patterns , which we are all too aware of in the islands, will also have an impact on the cameras/equipment used by the proposed remote control in Inverness. Indeed John Doig commented that HIAL’s project has huge engineering implications with the extra maintenance which will be needed at islands airports to keep the cameras/ equipment functioning.

The safety implications are extremely concerning . Peter Henderson stressed that the Highlands and Islands are being used as a testing ground for technology that is in its infancy. He commented that HIAL should instead be making air traffic control as safe and reliable as possible in communities where the air link can be the difference between life and death.

The Scottish Government supports the HIAL strategy. HIAL is 100% owned by Scottish Government Ministers. Referring to the Highlands and Islands served by HIAL as ‘remote’, the Scottish Government submission states:

“The ATMS Project will further enhance safety by introducing surveillance at additional airports so that Air Traffic Controllers can see where all aircraft are at all times.”

This statement was robustly challenged by the petitioners who cited the untested nature of the technology, the unpredictable weather conditions and that the Scottish Government had presented a one sided argument in favour of the remote towers.

“We are being experimented on” said Peter Henderson with “remote links which are highly unstable.”

The Scottish Government also stated that centralising air traffic control in Inverness with the remote towers system would be good for employment and improve resilience in the industry.

This too was contested very effectively by John Doig and Peter Henderson. They were able to point to the locally trained staff, people who live in the islands and highlands, who are still working in the airports they were appointed to. This is in contrast to the workers recruited from Sweden and Finland by HIAL who have moved on. Local people who want to remain in their communities, who are settled with families and friends, have stayed in the jobs.

Reading through the Scottish Government’s submission it is quite clear that HIAL have their full support.

We are satisfied that HIAL has taken their decision based on the best available information and an in-depth analysis of the different options. We do not believe that a further assessment of the decisions that HIAL has taken or the decision making process they have used in relation to the ATMS Project is required. A failure to move in the same direction as the rest of the industry now will simply store up problems for HIAL which will have to be addressed in the future. It is essential that HIAL stays ahead of the curve to ensure that connectivity is protected.

It is quite shocking that the Islands Act, a ground breaking piece of legislation, has been so easily put aside by the Scottish Government in their submission. There is absolutely no excuse for that.

And the other written submission, this one by Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, says of HIAL’s scant regard for the Islands Act:

This action by HIAL indicates to the Comhairle, its local Elected Members and the Uist Association of Community Councils that HIAL’s commitment to implementation of the Islands Impact Assessment or, indeed, a future decision of the Public Petitions Committee, is questionable.

The MSPs thanked the petitioners for their ‘excellent’ contributions.

What happens next?

The Public Petitions Committee will now take this matter further. They will be calling for additional evidence including from: HIAL, The Scottish Government Cabinet Secretary for Transport, local authorities, airport managers, Prospect trade union and other stakeholders.

Convener of the committee Johan Lamont said that the issue was more than just an ‘operational matter’ and that serious concerns had been raised over safety, employment and local communities. She also wanted to know why the Islands Act had not been brought into force because a proper islands impact assessment would have helped to test out some of the arguments. She said that the evidence presented by John Doig and Peter Henderson had been really useful and that there was a lot for the committee to look for in services which were both commercial but also lifeline.

The papers can be viewed here: Public Papers

Related story:

And you can view the evidence session here:

Control tower and apron, Benbecula Airport by David Martin

Reporter: Fiona Grahame

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