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Strike action looms at north airports over plans to centralise air traffic control operations

Air traffic control tower.
Air traffic control tower.

Air passengers across the north face could face disruption with the threat of one-day strikes by traffic controllers after New Year.

Staff employed by Highlands and Islands Airports are to vote on industrial action over plans to centralise operations to one remote tower in Inverness – though it is understood mediation is to take place.

Union bosses and politicians have been vocal in opposition to the controversial proposal.

Prospect Union members in air traffic control at HIAL’s 11 airports are to be balloted on industrial action, which could lead to individual one-day strikes after January 4.

Union negotiator David Avery 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, but we are seeking mediation with ACAS in the hope that a way to avoid industrial action can be found.

“Should industrial action be approved, there will be no impact on emergency cover.”

The union claims HIAL’s plan to centralise air traffic functions to Inverness would have a devastating effect on the communities affected – reducing safety and damaging economies.

Safety and operational concerns have been raised, including the breakdown of data transmission systems, cyber-security, and weather assessments.

Prospect bosses believe it would also effectively result in compulsory redundancies, with many staff reluctant to be uprooted from the communities they serve.

A recent independent report commissioned by Prospect found the remote towers programme would take at least £2.2 million a year of economic benefit from island economies.

The union claims HIAL’s own scoping study identified the remote towers option as “the most difficult and risky to implement”, adding that the company’s ‘redacted business case’ showed implementation costs had already almost doubled to £33.5 million.

HIAL managing director Inglis Lyon, however, said: “The threat of industrial action is likely to create uncertainty and frustration for communities, our colleagues and airline customers and that is an outcome we hope all parties will seek to avoid.

“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.”

He added: “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.”

HIAL has already purchased a site in Inverness for the remote tower and is seeking a contractor to provide a simulator to train controllers at a cost of £240,000.

Last month the Scottish Parliament’s Public Petitions Committee heard from campaigners urging HIAL to halt its plans to centralise air traffic control services.

The company, which is 100% owned by Scottish ministers, says the plan will solve recruitment issues and make it sustainable in the long-term.

Highlands and Islands Conservative MSP Edward Mountain said: “This is very disappointing news and the last thing we needed given the impact of the pandemic.

“I urge both sides to talk together to ensure that industrial action is avoided.”

Orkney MSP Liam McArthur said: “Any strike action that impacts on our islands’ lifeline air services is deeply concerning.

“I would encourage both sides to continue discussions with a view to avoiding any such disruption.

“In particular, I would urge HIAL once again to put on hold its plans to centralise air traffic control services in Inverness.

“The case for modernisation is not disputed, but there is growing opposition to HIAL’s centralisation plans amongst staff and local communities.”

Shetland’s MSP Beatrice Wishart added: “The community concerns around the remote towers project have been clear as day, but still HIAL is determined to press on.”

Sumburgh Airport. Jim Irvine/DC Thomson

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