Remote towers proposals put future of Islands air services at risk

17 Jan 2020

Highlands and Islands Airports Limited (HIAL) is announcing proposals to shut air traffic towers in the Highlands and Islands, relocating them all to a remote site in Inverness, up to 300 miles away.

The proposals also involve downgrading air traffic services at Benbecula and Wick airports. Prospect, which represents air traffic control staff at HIAL airports, says the proposals are poorly thought-through, have not been consulted on, and will put the long-term future of vital services at risk.

There are two sets of major announcements from HIAL:

  1. The timetable for the closure of the air traffic control towers as part of the Remote Towers Project.
  2. A review of the service provision at Wick and Benbecula with the possibility of downgrading the station to a Flight Information Service Officer (FISO) service. A FISO only service offers no deconfliction service to keep aircraft out of each other’s path, simply offering pilots information about airfields and weather conditions. This service downgrade will likely result in up to 10 redundancies across the two airfields, many of whom are long-term members of the communities they serve.

No consultation was ever entered into prior to the board taking their decision. No consultation has been entered into with local communities in the highlands and islands, local politicians or with HIAL’s customers, despite the highly controversial nature of the proposals.

Analysis from Prospect suggests that moving air traffic control to Inverness will remove up to 60 skilled jobs and around £1.5 million of direct employment from rural and island economies. This runs contrary to the intention of the government’s recently published Islands Plan. This is despite the fact that HIAL is owned by the Scottish Government.

Prospect also fears that going down this route will reduce the safety and resilience of air traffic control across the Highlands by relying on a single centre and a single point of failure.

David Avery, Prospect negotiator, said:

“The proposals to downgrade services at Wick and Benbecula are staggering. They fly against the government’s own recently published Islands Plan which seeks to protect and improve services and employment in island communities.

“Within these small communities the loss of even a few jobs like this is the equivalent of losing several hundred jobs in Glasgow and Edinburgh.

“It is inconceivable that such far-reaching changes can be brought in with the paltry level of consultation and transparency we have seen. For a government-owned company to treat its workers, customers, and local communities in this way is absolutely staggering.

“Prospect will not stand by and allow HIAL to downgrade Scotland’s islands with this threat to their air services and their economy.

“At the same time as Prospect members were voting to accept a pay deal which included a guarantee of no compulsory redundancies, the HIAL board have decided to implement these changes which will inevitably lead to redundancies.

“Members will see this as a betrayal by the board.”

HIAL plans will reduce safety

After further scrutinising the plans, we have raised significant concerns around accuracy of public statements around the proposals, and to the efficacy and safety of the plans:

  • Safety at Benbecula is being reduced by HIAL, not increased as was originally promised at the start of this project.
  • A Transport Scotland statement says that “HIAL has engaged extensively with staff, local authorities and other stakeholders throughout the process and we expect them to continue to engage and consult as it implements the programme.” This is not the case. HIAL has not consulted staff, communities or users on the strategic direction of the project, it has only consulted on how to implement the decision it had already taken.
  • Prospect also questions the deliverability of the remote towers plan without the need for compulsory redundancies and a substantial hit to high-value jobs in local communities. In a Prospect survey only 29% of HIAL controllers express an interest in relocating/commuting to the new centre in Inverness. Controllers at all seven sites cannot be compelled to be relocated but are at risk of compulsory redundancy if they do not.

David Avery, Prospect negotiator, said:

“These plans from HIAL are ill-thought-through and do not adequately take into account safety concerns or deliverability.

“Despite several misleading claims HIAL has also completely failed to consult on the strategic direction of the plans leaving communities, workers and other stakeholders with no say over what happens to vital services.

“Having taken its workers for granted there are also huge questions over how HIAL will manage to staff its new set up. A survey of Prospect air traffic controllers showed just 29% willing to relocate.

“There are already recruitment problems in the area – it is hard to see how HIAL will be able to recruit and retain the talent it will require to maintain services at their current level.”


More information

For further information contact the Prospect press office on 02079022246 or Graham Moonie on 07889337719.