Prospect members in air traffic control at Highlands and Islands Airports Limited (HIAL) are to be balloted on industrial action, it was announced by the union yesterday (Tuesday 24 November).

But independent mediation is also planned, in a bid to prevent disruptive strike action at airports already hard-hit by Covid-19 travel restrictions and falling passenger numbers.

The union ballot is over HIAL’s plans to push on with its remote towers project and could lead to action short of a strike starting on 4 January 2021, with individual one-day strikes from then onwards.

HIAL managing director Inglis Lyon has warned that any industrial action would create uncertainty and frustration for communities, employees and passengers, an outcome that, he said: “We hope all parties will seek to avoid.”

Prospect members are voting on the action because they believe the HIAL plan to centralise air traffic control in Inverness would have a devastating effect, reducing safety and damaging the island economy.

Stornoway and Benbecula would be among those airports directly affected, with compulsory redundancies for staff reluctant to be relocated from the communities they currently serve.

A recent Prospect independent report looked into HIAL’s plan for remote towers operating air traffic control at island airports from a central mainland location.

It identified significant problems including the loss of at least £22m (£2.2m annually) of economic benefit from island economies.

In addition, HIAL’s own scoping study identified the remote towers option as ‘the most difficult and risky to implement’. Safety and operational concerns included cyber-security, weather assessment and the impact on human performance of locating the operation remotely.

David Avery, Prospect negotiator, said: “Prospect members do not want to have to take this action but HIAL’s continued refusal to look at the evidence against remote towers has left us with no option but to ballot.

“Prospect members’ primary concern is the potential impact of imposing the remote towers project on remote communities. It is our intention that any industrial action will cause as little disruption to local communities as possible and will start after the holidays so as to avoid any impact on Christmas plans.

“HIAL’s intransigence in this matter is frankly baffling. However, we are seeking mediation with ACAS in the hope that a way to avoid industrial action can be found.”

Inglis Lyon said: “From the outset, we have been clear HIAL has a no compulsory redundancy policy, which was agreed by the Scottish Government and the trade unions, including Prospect, in 2018.”

“Having been made aware of the Prospect survey that canvassed air traffic controllers on industrial action, HIAL wrote to Prospect and suggested independent mediation.

“The union has now accepted and we will agree a date for discussions to take place.”

Isles MP Angus MacNeil is backing calls by Prospect Union to protect island jobs by opposing the centralisation of Air Traffic Control functions to Inverness.

Commenting Isles MP Angus MacNeil said: “This is an inevitable consequence of HIAL’s high-handed approach to people’s jobs and livelihoods and damaging the island economy by taking critical, well-paid jobs out of the area.  It is time now for the Scottish Government to step in.

“HIAL’s answers have not been good enough. Air Traffic Control staff and the public deserve better. The Transport Minister needs to get involved and our Air Traffic Control services need to be kept in Benbecula and Stornoway.”  Prospect have stressed that any industrial action will have no effect on emergency services and if action is taken it will be after the Christmas holiday period, the MP said.

(The MPs comments have been added since this article was first posted)