‘There is no bitterness, we have a business to run’ The HIAL Air Traffic Saga Continues

MSPs were given assurances that the Board of Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd (HIAL) had learned lessons from the 5 years of the now discredited Remote Towers Scheme.

Inglis Lyon, Managing Director of HIAL, was appearing before the Citizen Participation and Public Petitions Committee of the Scottish Parliament where he acknowledged that the change in direction was mostly due to the impact of Industrial action by air traffic controllers opposed to the failed scheme.

The MSPs were taking evidence from Inglis Lyon as they again considered Petition PE 1804: Halt Highlands and Islands Airports Ltds Air Traffic Management Strategy. Also present at the meeting were two MSPs representing the area affected who have been involved from the start: Liam McArthur Orkney Constituency MSP and Rhoda Grant Highlands and Islands Regional MSP.

Inglis Lyon said the the decision to change the strategy from air traffic being controlled in a Remote Tower in Inverness to the current scheme using radar was due to a combination of factors:

  • Industrial action
  • Finance
  • The role of Prospect trade union and MSPs
  • The Islands Impact Assessment

He reported that the Industrial Action by Air Traffic Controllers employed by HIAL was hugely disruptive. The Air Traffic Controllers had raised their concerns and objections from the very start when the HIAL Board selected the Remote Tower option. Inglis Lyon said that the industrial action which included strikes and an over time ban had cost local operator Loganair a loss in revenue of £2million. One of the impacts of the industrial action, and which is still affecting services today, was that training stopped. There are still closures taking place at Inverness airport due to staffing issues. It was in Inverness that the Remote Tower was to be based – where there were ongoing staffing problems.

Inglis Lyon told MSPs that it was important to ‘get industrial action off the table’ and that was why the Remote Tower project, which the Board had said was the only option, had to be changed. He conceded that there was no bitterness, ‘we have a business to run’, he stated.

Pressing him on the costs of the failed project, Inglis Lyon restated that it amounted to £9million but that some of that – £1.4million – was in staffing involved in the project and that they have now been redeployed. To house the Remote Tower setup HIAL had purchased New Century House, a three storey building in an Industrial Estate in Inverness. Today that is being used as a temporary training facility and may be sold in the future as it is now no longer needed.

Inglis Lyon felt that the most important lesson learned from the failed project was that communication must improve. He said that attendance had dropped at the working parties developing the ‘new’ radar scheme and that he would need to encourage more participation.

On recruiting local people for the service, which in the past was highly successful but was dropped, he said that his would happen ‘where we can’. It is clear from the delay in moving radar control at Sunburgh Shetland from NATS over to Inverness that staffing is still a major block to any projects centered in Inverness.

The Committee decided to continue to look into the HIAL air traffic management project and it is likely that an external investigation will take place perhaps by Audit Scotland.

HIAL is a  private limited company wholly owned by Scottish Government Ministers. It is governed by a Board. No members of the Board live in the communities it serves. In 5 years time the Remote Tower option is still up for consideration.

You can watch the session here:

Fiona Grahame

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