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Air traffic controllers at Wick could strike next month

By Gordon Calder

AIR traffic controllers at Wick John O'Groats Airport could go on strike next month in a bid to get an improved pay deal.

They and their Highlands and Islands colleagues in the Prospect union overwhelmingly backed industrial action in a ballot.

Eighty-eight per cent voted to strike, with 90 per cent backing action short of a strike. Turnout was 86 per cent.

However, the union and representatives of Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd (Hial) are to hold talks – scheduled for Friday – in a bid to resolve the dispute. Hial is owned by the Scottish Government.

If there is no resolution then action could be taken at seven airports, including Wick John O'Groats, in April and continue through the summer. Others that would be affected are Inverness, Kirkwall, Sumburgh, Stornoway, Benbecula and Dundee.

Prospect negotiations officer David Avery said air traffic controllers working for Hial will be taking strike action on April 26, although action short of a strike will start on April 1 and continue until August 31. That could include working to rosters, an overtime ban and the withdrawal of goodwill.

However, the union wants to ensure there is cover for emergency incidents during any strike.

Mr Avery also pointed out that Prospect members agreed to delay any strike action until after the Scottish Easter school holidays.

"Our members do not want to stop their friends and neighbours visiting their families during the school holidays," he said.

"I urge Hial and Scottish ministers to use the additional time members have given them to bring forward real proposals to resolve the dispute rather than the same offer which has already been rejected twice.

"Air traffic controllers do not want to have to take this action but ministers’ refusal to engage with the issue of pay has left them with no choice. Prospect remains ready to negotiate at any point to avoid this action but ministers must come back to the table with a new, meaningful offer."

Hial managing director Inglis Lyon said industrial action is likely to have "a significant impact on passengers and the communities in the Highlands and Islands".

He said: "The Prospect union has sought a double-digit pay award. As a government-sponsored agency, Hial must follow the Scottish Government pay policy. We cannot implement pay awards more than that directed by government."

Mr Lyon explained that a three per cent increase was offered to all staff at the end of September. Air traffic controllers rejected the offer and want a rise thought to be around 10 per cent.

"We are open to holding further talks with Prospect on a recruitment and retention allowance for air traffic control staff that would further bolster an attractive remuneration package that already includes excellent pension benefits and holiday entitlements," he added.

Highlands and Islands MSP John Finnie, who is the Scottish Greens' transport spokesman, said: "The Scottish ministers own HIAL and have a responsibility to ensure this situation is resolved urgently with a fair settlement for staff."

His Conservative colleague, Edward Mountain, said: "I am disappointed HIAL air traffic controllers are considering strike action regarding their pay claim.

"Airports in Inverness, Sumburgh, Kirkwall, Wick John O’Groats, Stornoway, Benbecula and Dundee are vital not only for businesses in the Highlands and Islands but also for holidaymakers. I urge both sides to continue to negotiate to find a solution that will prevent strike action."

Meanwhile, a scheme which subsidises air fares for people in remote parts of Scotland has been extended until the end of next year.

The decision to extend the Air Discount Scheme until December 31, 2020, was welcomed by local MSP Gail Ross yesterday. She pointed out that from April 1 the scheme will cover the whole of Caithness and more areas in Sutherland.

She said: "The Air Discount Scheme is not only vital to communities in the far north, but also very popular.

"This is a great example of the Scottish Government’s commitment to our rural communities and to widening access for local residents, encourage more visitors and also ensure more students in eligible areas are able to sign up to the scheme."

The discount scheme provides travellers with a discount of 50 per cent on core air fares.

Students studying in the eligible areas, but whose main residence is elsewhere, will also now be included in the scheme.

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