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Prospect union claim ‘big win’ as Hial shelves Remote Towers project

western isles strikes
Stornoway Airport. Image: Sandy McCook/DC Thomson.

Prospect union has declared a “big win” in a long running dispute with Highland and Islands Airport Limited (Hial).

Hial announced today it has agreed air traffic tower services will continue to be provided in the communities they serve.

Hial had proposed controlling air traffic at six regional airports from Inverness by 2023, with a loss of jobs in those communities – known as the Remote Towers project.

A spokesman for Prospect the Union described the news as a “big win” ahead of a vote of members to agree to Hial’s proposals.

He said the vote is likely to take place within the next few weeks.

Prospect said the news came following “a series of highly constructive talks” between them and Hial management which began in October 2021.

The union had been vehemently opposed to the plan, citing the loss of jobs and concerns over safety by centralising control towers to Inverness.

‘Sensible’ decision

MP Angus MacNeil.

MP Angus Brendan MacNail, Na h-Eileanan an Iar, said the decision was “sensible” but cautioned that islanders must keep a “sharp eye” on Hial for future decisions.

Figures obtained from Hial through a freedom of Information request by Shetland News revealed more than £6m has so far been spent on the controversial project.

A spokesman for Hial said the board met on January 24 to discuss the future direction for its Air Traffic Management Strategy (ATMS).

He said: “This will comprise a centralised surveillance operation for Sumburgh, Kirkwall, Stornoway, Inverness, and Dundee airports, based at our existing approach radar facility on the Inverness Airport Site.

Sumburgh Airport.

“Air traffic tower services will continue to be provided locally at each of these airports.”

The decision will now allow Prospect to ballot its members on the acceptance of the revised proposal.

A working group is also to be set up to discuss the future delivery of services at
Benbecula and Wick John O’Groats airports.

Hial says it has listened to feedback

Lorna Jack, Hial’s chairwoman said: “We’ve listened to the feedback from our colleagues and island communities in reaching our decision.

“This alternative delivery of the ATMS programme will provide enhanced safety and resilience to our operations and retain air traffic controllers on the islands.”

Hial’s managing director Inglis Lyon said: “We were pleased to note the encouraging feedback from Prospect on the constructive working relations that have been developed through the staff working groups.

“We look forward to continuing this positive approach with Prospect and our colleagues as we move into the next phase of detailed operational design.”

He hoped Hial’s decision would bring to an end the ongoing industrial action with Prospect members.

‘This brings to an end a long running dispute’

David Avery, Prospect negotiator, said: “This decision is an important one for Prospect members and hopefully brings to an end our long-running dispute with Hial over remote towers.

“We welcome Hial’s commitment to modernising air traffic control services in a way that works for staff, communities and the business.

Air traffic controllers will now be asked to vote on Hial’s new plans.

“I want to thank everyone who has helped us to reach this outcome. It would not have happened without the dedicated campaigning of Prospect members, and without the widespread support of communities and politicians across the affected areas.

“We look forward to working with HIAL to bring through these modernisations.”

Islanders ‘can not have decisions made about us’

Western Isles MP Angus Brendan MacNeil who has opposed the plan from the outset said: “Sensible of Hial to do this as they were at risk of losing the ‘I’ for Islands in the Highlands and Islands Airports Limited name.

“We must however keep a sharp eye on Hial including the makeup of the board in future.

“As islanders we cannot have decisions made about us, too often by people with little or no island experience.

“The Faroese islanders, who economically per capita actually outperform Scotland show us that islanders make the best decisions for islands.”

How will services now be modernised?

Prospect said that air traffic services will still be modernised but in a way that protects jobs.

As well as abandoning remote towers the new plans are said to include:

  • The introduction of a surveillance programme across the Hial network with surveillance services provided for Stornoway, Sumburgh, Kirkwall, Inverness, and Dundee airports from a combined surveillance centre in Inverness.
  • Air traffic tower services being provided locally at each of these airports.
  • A review of air traffic provision against a scope, agreed by Hial and Prospect, to inform the next steps of the programme.   The review to be undertaken at the end of the surveillance programme, or at five years, whichever is soonest.
  • A review of the proposed downgrade air traffic services for Benbecula and Wick John O’Groats airports.

Mike Clancy, general secretary of Prospect, said: “This is an important result not only for Prospect members but also for the communities they serve.

“I want to congratulate them and everyone else involved – this shows what we can achieve when we combine the power of unions with the voice of local communities.”

There have previously been demands for a Holyrood probe after it was revealed that Hial had spent £6million on controversial air traffic control scheme.