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April 21, 2020

Island communities concerns ignored 

With the passing of the Islands (Scotland) Act 2018, there was some expectation that the interests of island communities would feature more prominently in national decision-making and that the National Islands Plan, published towards the end of last year, would reflect this. No surprise that improving transport links with the mainland is a key priority of the plan. But it’s also no surprise that so many island communities are now up in arms about the decision of the mainland-based Airports Authority to downgrade the air traffic control system on the islands. A petition has been raised in Parliament.

Hans J Marter, Shetland News

A PETITION urging the Scottish Parliament to halt Highlands and Islands Airports Limited’s (HIAL) plans to introduce remote tower technology at five airports in the region is quickly gaining support on the parliament’s website.

The petition, initiated by Benbecula Community Council and supported by former Benbecula councillor Alasdair MacEachen as well as former HIAL employees John Doig and Peter Henderson, has already gained over 300 signatures since it went live on Thursday.

The petitioners feel aggrieved with the way HIAL reached the decision to go ahead with its remote tower air traffic management strategy (ATMS), and they are demanding an independent assessment of the project.

Last December the government-owned company announced it would go ahead with its controversial plans to make air traffic control at seven of its airports – including Sumburgh, Kirkwall and Stornoway – redundant, and replace it with remote tower technology installed at a new Combined Surveillance Centre (CSC) in Inverness.

In addition, air traffic control service at Wick and Benbecula’s airports would be downgraded.

Ever since, HIAL’s move has been criticised by politicians of almost every persuasion from across the region, as well as by local authorities. Shetland Islands Council has said it is “very concerned” at potential job losses and safety implications.

Remote tower technology was first introduced in the north of Sweden in 2015 where it reportedly works well at smaller airports.

Doubts have been raised that the online technology is robust enough to perform reliably in the islands communities in the north of Scotland, and in particular at a busy Sumburgh Airport with its two runways and significant levels of traffic comprised of scheduled flights, charted oil industry flights as well as offshore helicopter flights.

While agreeing with HIAL’s assertion that the changing regulatory environment of aviation “requires change”, the petitioners believe that the airport operator’s approach is the wrong one, and will not result in a more “sustainable and cost-effective service”.

They believe it will ultimately compromise the quality of the current service.

The petitioners wrote: “We believe that quality of service of scheduled flights to the communities served at the seven airports may be compromised due to the potential for an increase in flight delays, cancellations and airport closures at Stornoway, Inverness, Sumburgh, Kirkwall and Dundee.”

They also said that “existing digital remote towers do not support cross runway operations”, and made the point that “safety critical local knowledge of geography, weather, facilities and much more will be lost” as remote air traffic controllers “will lack such awareness”.

Acknowledging that ageing infrastructure and outdated methods of controlling air traffic need to be modernised urgently, they reminded HIAL that the majority of air traffic controllers employed by the company are opposed to the proposed project and have said they would refuse to relocate to the new centre.

“We believe the technical feasibility of this project has not been proven,” they said, adding that no-one on the HIAL board that approved the project has civil aviation qualifications.

The petition can be found on the Scottish Parliament’s website. The closing date is 6 May.

The public petition committee will the decide what to do next. It could decide to take oral evidence from government, public bodies and the petitioners themselves, and, potentially, make recommendations to the Scottish Government.

HIAL has been contacted for comment.