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Air Traffic Control workers are considering taking industrial action in their battle against planned centralisation of the air traffic control infrastructure of Highland and Islands Airports Limited (HIAL).

David Avery, negotiations officer with the Prospect trade union, said: “Prospect never undertakes industrial action lightly, but members feel they have been left with no choice but to support action to defend their communities.

“Prospect members are currently considering the form of action they might take so as to have a minimal impact on local communities particularly during the ongoing pandemic.”

HIAL managing director Inglis Lyon said: “We are very disappointed they are considering industrial action.” 

The conflict comes at time when all airlines are struggling to survive because the number of travellers has fallen to a trickle because of the Covid-19 crisis, and money saved from the now little-used Scottish Government Air Discount Scheme is being used to keep the airports open. 

Prospect conducted a survey of Air Traffic members in HIAL. This survey follows a similar survey conducted in 2018. A summary of the results of the new survey can be read here.

The union says the results show that two years on from their first survey, HIAL staff are still overwhelmingly opposed to the remote towers project.  They are still supportive of modernising HIAL’s air traffic control infrastructure but believe that this should be delivered at each airport rather than centralised in Inverness. This option, as well as protecting highly skilled jobs in rural communities, remains cheaper and easier to deliver than HIAL’s centralised solution.

The vast majority of union members have also indicated that they are not prepared to relocate to Inverness regardless of the relocation terms offered. “The consequence of this is that unless HIAL changes tack nearly 50 staff will be made redundant with HIAL needing to recruit a similar number in Inverness at very significant expense to the taxpayer.”

HIAL managing director Inglis Lyon said: “We categorically refute Prospect’s claims of 50 staff redundancies. From the outset, we have been clear that HIAL has a no compulsory redundancy policy and we are exploring all options with our colleagues.”

The survey also shows that members, who are experts within their field of air traffic management, oppose the decision to change of the air traffic control status of both Benbecula and Wick airports.  The union says this is reducing the level of safety provision at those two airports.

A HIAL spokesperson said earlier: “We have set out clearly our rationale for sustainable air service provision based on the relatively low volume of air traffic. Our proposals are in line with practices in other HIAL airfields and aerodromes elsewhere in the UK.

“To be clear, our plans will not affect air traffic safety and it is misleading to say otherwise. We continue to work with colleagues, the trade union and the regulator to ensure air traffic services are maintained at the highest level required.”

Prospect says that the survey also shows support for industrial action. This is an indicative survey only and not a statutory industrial action ballot. Prospect has not yet served notice of a formal statutory ballot or announced what form of action members would be balloted on.

David Avery. Prospect negotiations officer, said:“Prospect members in HIAL are absolutely committed to protecting and serving their local communities. That is why they are opposing this deeply damaging project which will reduce services at two airports, take £2.2million of direct employment out of local economies and put nearly 50 staff out of a job.

“Prospect never undertakes industrial action lightly, but members feel they have been left with no choice but to support action to defend their communities. Prospect members are currently considering the form of action they might take so as to have a minimal impact on local communities particularly during the ongoing pandemic.

“Prospect received an invitation to further talks with HIAL yesterday evening and is considering its response.”

HIAL managing director Inglis Lyon said: “We were made aware of the outcome of Prospect’s survey amongst our air traffic colleagues and we are very disappointed they are considering industrial action.  Such action is disruptive for our communities, businesses, travellers and airlines at any time, but is even more so during the current pandemic and at a time when the aviation industry is severely impacted by the effects of the virus.

  “We wish to avoid industrial action and have therefore written to Prospect to suggest we engage the services of an external facilitator to help resolve matters and we await a response.”