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Scottish Government urged to rethink plans to centralise air traffic control services in the Highlands and Islands in letter from European Transport Workers’ Federation

By Val Sweeney

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Hial, Inverness Airport which will eventually be connected by rail.
Hial, Inverness Airport which will eventually be connected by rail.

Leaders of a European trade union organisation are calling for a rethink on plans to centralise air traffic control services in the Highlands and Islands.

The European Transport Workers’ Federation (ETF) has condemned plans by Highlands and Islands Airports Limited (Hial) – which operates 11 airports – to reduce the current level of the air traffic control services at six airports and centralise them remotely in Inverness.

The federation has written to Scotland's Minister for Transport Graeme Dey, maintaining such a decision would strongly disrupt the local rural communities in the north-western part of Scotland, not just through the loss of highly skilled jobs but also by potentially losing essential services, such as medical flights, due to the vulnerability of remote tower technology.

The ETF is calling on the Scottish Government to give up on implementing such a decision and to look beyond the cost efficiency and profit figures of Hial and focus mostly on the long-term negative consequences of such a decision for its citizens, workers and broader society in the Highlands and Islands.

In the letter, the Secretary General of ETF, Livia Spera, writes that without having a clear assessment of the socio-economic effects of such a decision, removing the current in-person services will greatly affect the livelihoods of the communities in the north-west, as the airports play a key role for their own existence.

"Airports provide significant indirect employment in local communities, and the same can be said for ATC towers," the letter states.

"This includes indirect jobs providing maintenance and services to the tower, from engineering to cleaning, all will be affected by this decision."

It also states Scotland is not the first nation to implement remote towers in remote communities but that all instances required considerable time, study and assessment.

It continues: "In the UK, there is only one tower now operated remotely, and that is in London City airport, located in the middle of one of the largest cities in Europe.

"It is operated from one of the largest ATM operations centers in Europe in Swanwick, and all the infrastructure associated with both the location of the airport, and the controllers, provides a certain level of institutional support."

Given rural communities in Highlands and Islands did not have a second option or a plan B, the ETF demanded the ATC services be assured in the region without discontinuity, underlining that – contrary to the situation in London – most HIAL airports required access to aviation for medical purposes on a daily basis, as well as for other type of emergency services.

The letter also expresses concerns regarding the downgrading of services at Benbecula and Wick airports.

It said there were huge safety risks in implementing such a decision and reminded the authorities of the imperative need to maintain their current level of specialised air traffic services, due to the nature of both the airports and the traffic they currently serve, such as scheduled air services, ferry flights, and offshore helicopter operations, and the very specific weather conditions in this part of Europe.

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