Protests have followed the decision announced today (Thursday July 5) that air traffic control in the Highlands and Islands will be centralised in Inverness.  

Responding to HIAL’s announcement that Inverness is the preferred location for a proposed remote towers control centre, Comhairle nan Eilean Siar’s Chairman of Transportation and Infrastructure, Councillor Uisdean Robertson, said:

“Whilst it comes as no great surprise it is nevertheless disappointing that Inverness is the preferred location for the remote towers control centre. 

“If this goes ahead there will be a loss of high quality jobs in the islands, both in Benbecula and Stornoway.

“I think at the very least such a decision would be contrary to the principle of ‘Island Proofing’, contained in The Islands Bill which recently came into effect. The loss of well paid jobs and the economic impact on Island areas would be disproportionately higher in the Islands and I would call on our MSP and the Scottish Government to demand that HIAL look at this again.” 

And Na h-Eileanan an Iar  MP Angus MacNeil will write to Lillian Greenwood MP, chair of the Transport Select Committee of the House of Commons, to intervene.

Mr MacNeil will also write to the Scottish Islands Minister Paul Wheelhouse MSP urging the Scottish Government to take action on plans which will lead to the loss of quality island jobs.

Mr MacNeil said: “It is absolutely no surprise that this is the game HIAL are playing, at the very beginning this was about their empire and jobs in Inverness which I predicted.

“The Scottish Government will have to look at the real social and economic impacts of this. The greatest turnover of staff is in Inverness where they want to put this empire and lowest in places like Benbecula and Stornoway where they are trying to take much needed jobs.

“If electronic communications are as good as HIAL are saying, they could easily have put this centre in Benbecula or Stornoway.

 “I am writing to the Transport Select Committee of the House of Commons about the viability of what HIAL  are proposing, as well as going into their scoping exercise as air traffic controllers have informed me they feel there have been flaws in this.

 “I will also write to Islands Minister Paul Wheelhouse MSP urging the Scottish Government to get a grip of HIAL because they are running away from social and economic responsibilities here in the Hebrides.

“We have our ferry company being managed away from the islands, our airlines being managed away from the islands and now we can’t manage to have a few air traffic control jobs in the islands.

“This contrasts with our neighbours in the Faroe Islands who have their own national airline, 3 or 4 Airbus 320s, their own airport and airlines all run in the Faroe Islands.

“The Scottish Government have to have a look at this and perhaps one solution might be breaking up HIAL into Highlands Airports and a separate Islands Airports so that we have some measure of control and development in our communities.”

Earlier a scoping study from consultants Ekos, setting out why Inverness should be the preferred location, was accepted, in principle, by the HIAL board.  The Board has also committed to undertaking a communities impact assessment as part of HIAL’s ATM (Air Traffic Management) 2030 project.

The project, first announced in January 2018, will change the way air traffic services are provided at seven HIAL airports by running activities in a centralised tower and surveillance centre, and modernising the way airspace is managed.

Digital tower technology is currently operating all over the world, including Germany, Ireland, New Zealand and the United States.

Cameras offer air traffic controllers panoramic views of the airfield showing more detail than is possible with the human eye.

ATM 2030 is a transformational change programme and is the largest of its kind within UK air traffic control.  It will bring together air traffic management of seven airports into a single location including HIAL airports at Sumburgh, Dundee, Inverness, Wick John O’Groats, Kirkwall, Stornoway and Benbecula.  Timescales for the implementation of the project have still to be fully discussed and approved.

HIAL managing director Inglis Lyon, said: “The scoping study identifies Inverness as having the most compelling case to support HIAL’s continued delivery of its core activities.
“We have also taken the views of our staff into account and Inverness was their preferred option should relocation be required.

“Inverness is best suited from a technical, operational and staffing perspective.  Inverness is centrally located in relation to the other HIAL airports and has direct flights to Sumburgh, Kirkwall, Stornoway and Benbecula.  It has road and rail connections with Dundee and Wick. HIAL’s focus is, and will continue to be, on aviation service delivery. The airports it operates and the connections it provides are an important part of Scotland’s transport network and directly contribute to the economic prosperity and sustainability of communities, particularly in remote regions and the islands.”

“From an organisational perspective, maintaining a high value service is the primary goal and it is vital the preferred location supports HIAL to deliver its core activities, namely, safe and sustainable aviation services.”

HIAL interim chair Lorna Jack said: “The implementation and delivery of the remote tower and surveillance centre is the largest and most complex project HIAL has ever undertaken.
“That is why we are committed to undertaking a thorough communities impact assessment that will take into account the views of local people, business leaders and local authorities to ensure the best decisions are made.  Prioritising aviation service delivery to the islands and other locations we serve is all about supporting those communities from both economic and social perspectives.”

In total, there are 86 positions that will likely be impacted by the new Remote Towers and Surveillance Centre. There are no planned reductions in staff numbers.

HIAL air traffic control staff and unions, airport managers and senior HIAL personnel have been involved throughout the process. The Scottish Government and local politicians have also been kept informed.