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September 22, 2020

Change comes slowly

There are certain professions, so deeply embedded into the DNA of our public services, that seem oblivious to the changes in the world around them and as a result carry on as they always have done irrespective of the outcomes. Public procurement is an example. Guiding principles such as centralisation, economies of scale, outsourcing and best value trump all other considerations – even shifts in government policy. The current stushie involving the decision to centralise air traffic control for Scotland’s island communities is a good example. Ruinously expensive and none of the island communities want it. . 

Martin Williams, The Herald

COSTS of centralising air traffic control for seven airports serving Scottish islands have doubled while the project has raised concerns over passenger safety, according to a new report.

Scottish Government-owned Highlands and Islands Airports Limited has been pushing ahead with plans to relocate air traffic work to one “remote site” in Inverness prompting fears that public safety is at risk.

It is expected to involve the removal of seven existing conventional towers at Inverness, Dundee, Shetland, Orkney, Wick, Benbecula and Stornoway. They would be replaced by a remote air traffic management system (RTS) supplemented by new IT.

Now an independent report by procurement expert Dave Watson commissioned by the Prospect union has said that implementation costs have already almost doubled to £33.5m.

It says the lifetime costs of the move would be £70m higher than leaving things alone.

Safety and operational concerns have been raised over the proposed remote tower system including, worries about a breakdown of data transmission systems, concerns over cyber-security and problems with weather assessment.

It said the project will take at least £18m of economic benefit from island economies. A proportionate loss to the Glasgow economy would equate to the loss of some 800 jobs or 600 in Edinburgh.

HIAL had to look further at winning the support of wider stakeholders, and managing the risks of the IT solution.

The report concluded that the project was a “high-risk procurement”

“In this case, the risks are not just financial; they are fundamental to the operation of airport services to the Highlands and Islands,” it said.

“Remote towers are not as yet proven technology in a setting as challenging as the Highlands and Islands of Scotland.

Weather assessment, data transmission, and cyber-security are vital concerns that need long-term evaluation. These and other concerns have not been adequately addressed in project governance. As a consequence, the programme has failed to gain the support of staff or the communities HIAL exists to serve.”

It said that the Covid-19 pandemic and other regulatory factors constitute a significant change to the original business case, and that the “sensible approach would be to place a moratorium on the programme until a full, transparent programme review was undertaken.

Proposals for a single remote tower centre – said to be a UK first -were first mooted two years ago as part of HIAL plans to “future-proof” its operations over the next ten to 15 years.

Air traffic controllers would be moved to a central hub, the location of which had not then been decided.

David Avery, Prospect negotiator, said: “From day one HIAL have presented this as a done deal with negligible consultation, even less transparency, and bad faith.

“Prospect and its members in HIAL are not against reasoned changes to the technology and the operating procedures of air traffic control in the Highlands and Islands but these plans are not fit for purpose.

“It is beyond belief that HIAL continue to press on with these plans, backed by the Scottish Government, when the risks and costs are so plain to see. And that’s before we take Covid-19 into account. The plans were already questionable but with the aviation industry in crisis the risks are even higher and must be rethought.

“If the Scottish Government and HIAL continue with the remote towers plans it will be remote communities that pay the price. It’s no wonder places like Shetland are looking into self-rule when their needs are paid so little regard.”

The report says that air traffic controllers nowadays often do weather assessment and the evaluation of the runway surfaces status. But in the case of RTS operations, these would have to be performed by dedicated staff or adequate systems and sensors.

“It is questionable how far weather assessment can be done by RTS controllers when being presented with a compressed or limited view of the airport. There is no evidence that [the project] will improve flight reliability or ability to land in fog, crosswinds or snow and ice conditions – a vital issue in the Highlands and Islands.”

A Prospect survey of members who work for HIAL showed that 94 per cent oppose the project and that 82 per cent would be more likely to leave HIAL if it was implemented.

“On this basis, HIAL is creating a recruitment crisis instead of solving one,” the report said.

A HIAL spokesman said: “Given that doing nothing is not an option the chosen approach is the only option that offers long-term solutions in terms of resilience and flexibility, both during normal and out-of-hours operations. Our position is clear and despite continued dialogue with the union we are compelled to challenge many of the points made in this report presented by Prospect.”

The Herald on Sunday revealed in February that illegal aid was found to have been made to HIAL-owned Sumburgh Airport on Shetland and Inverness Airport after both received a total of over £50m in past taxpayer support that had not been approved by the European Commission.=

Ministers had told the European Commission it considered Inverness, which carried over 600,000 passengers a year, and Sumburgh, which carries over 300,000, would close to scheduled passenger services without public funding.