HIAL Urged to ‘listen to the people’ on Air Traffic Management

Highland and Islands Airports Ltd’s (HIAL) failed remote tower system and its radar centralising replacement, came in for criticism again on Wednesday 4th of May.

The Scottish Parliament’s Citizen Participation and Public Petitions Committee heard evidence from Peter Henderson, representing the community and David Avery of the trade union Prospect representing air traffic controllers.

Also present were the two MSPs, Liam McArthur and Rhoda Grant who have supported the petitioners from the start of their campaign to put a halt to HIALs remote towers project: petition PE1804.

Peter Henderson, one of the petitioners, explained that concerns still exist. Considerable delays have meant that the plan to centralise Sumburgh (Shetland) radar to Inverness has fallen way behind schedule due to staffing issues at Inverness. Currently radar monitoring at Sumburgh is provided by NATS (National Air Traffic Services) through Aberdeen. HIAL have not been able to recruit and provide the trained staff required for this service to operate from Inverness. This development was a key component of their idea to replace the failed Remote Towers project.

David Avery, on behalf of the air traffic controllers said that the remote radar solution was not the first choice of his members but was ‘more palatable’ than the original project. He said that it was simpler and used established technology. He explained that the scheme is ‘green field radar’ and that it is doable but HIAL’s Inverness radar base has a challenge with staff shortages.

The committee heard that HIAL had refused to listen to the communities they serve and are only recently engaging with staff over their modernisation plans. HIAL have insisted that their new plan is not ‘window dressing’ but a real change. HIAL also made assurances that the plan to downgrade both Benbecula and Wick airports has been put on hold for 5 years.

The costs of this failed project have been eyewatering. There has been a total lack of involvement with the communities HIAL serve and a retrospective Islands Assessment commissioned by HIAL revealed significant flaws with the plans. Despite all this and industrial action by air traffic control, HIAL were still going ahead with the Remote Towers scheme. They continued to insist this was the only way forward. Which clearly now they are saying is not the case as they proceed with their plans to centralise radar in Inverness instead.

A representative from HIAL will appear before the Citizen Participation and Public Petitions Committee on 18th of May to present their evidence. There are calls for an investigation into how HIAL handled the Remote Towers project and the spiralling costs it involved. The petitioners would like to see an Independent Assessment taking place including looking at why the HIAL Board has no members who live in the communities it serves. There is also a role for Audit Scotland to examine the amount of tax payers money already squandered on this project.

Speaking after the meeting Orkney Constituency MSP Liam McArthur, LibDem said:

” Although, the remote towers project has now been abandoned, concerns remain about how long it took HIAL and SNP Ministers to accept it was unworkable and the cost to the public purse.

“While the immediate threat of job losses has been lifted, it would be entirely reasonable to expect a proper audit of ATMS to uncover whether due process was carried out.  Ultimately, there has been no reckoning for those responsible over a project that was doomed from the outset as the riskiest option for modernising air traffic services.

“An audit into the handling of this process is the very least that staff and local communities in the Highlands and Islands deserve.”

At the end of last year NATS,  the UK’s leading provider of air traffic control services, implemented the biggest ever geographical airspace change in the UK, removing long-established air routes over Scotland and freeing aircraft to choose their most direct flight path. 

NATS say that this will save CO2 every year equivalent to the power used by some 3,500 family homes (12,000 tonnes CO2/year).  

The new Free Route Airspace (FRA) covers approximately 150,000nm2 of airspace over the North Sea, Scotland, North Atlantic, Northern Ireland and a small portion of northern England – a footprint over twice the size of the UK. The new design has no noticeable difference on the ground, only affecting aircraft at a high-level above 25,000ft. 

You can watch the proceedings of the Scottish Parliament Committee here:

Fiona Grahame

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