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Highlands and Islands Airports centralisation plan branded 'wrong-headed' as MSP calls for remote towers plan to be scrapped

By Gordon Calder

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Concerns have been raised about the downgrading of services at Wick John O'Groats Airport.
Concerns have been raised about the downgrading of services at Wick John O'Groats Airport.

PLANS to centralise Highlands and Islands air traffic control services in Inverness should be scrapped, according to north MSP Gail Ross.

She is concerned about the safety of the proposal, its cost and the economic impact it would have on areas such as Caithness. Wick John O'Groats Airport would be downgraded as part of the plan mooted by Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd (Hial).

The SNP MSP, who represents the Caithness, Sutherland and Ross constituency, believes the project should be looked at again.

Mrs Ross spoke out when she took part in a virtual session of the Scottish Parliament's public petitions committee and said the proposal is one of the most contentious issues in the constituency at the moment.

She said the plan would result in the loss of highly skilled people from rural and island communities.

The MSP expressed concern about the safety aspects of the proposals and said there has been strong opposition from air traffic controllers and companies such as Far North Aviation which is based at Wick airport. "That can't be ignored or swept under the rug," she said.

Mrs Ross would like the Auditor General for Scotland to look at the costs and said the safety concerns should be explored with the Civil Aviation Authority – the industry regulator – while the impact the plan would have on rural and islands communities should also be investigated.

Gail Ross. Picture: DGS
Gail Ross. Picture: DGS

She wants Hial and Transport Scotland to give evidence to the committee so they can be questioned face to face.

"I want to hear what they have to say. My recommendation would be to scrap the whole thing and start again," added Mrs Ross, who is unhappy with the way the consultation process has been handled.

Rhoda Grant, the Labour MSP for the Highlands and Islands, described the project as "wrong-headed" and thinks it is unsafe and would have an adverse impact in the north. She said many of the air traffic controllers are "really concerned " about what is being proposed.

"They are the experts on this," said Mrs Grant, who said the centralisation plan was "hugely expensive and untested".

"Alternative proposals have been put forward by staff but they have been ignored," added the MSP. "We could have an air traffic system at a fraction of the cost and it would be safe.

"This plan will take jobs away from the islands and other places and will have huge economic impact. Staff want to live and work where they are and they have a right to live in these communities. Hial don't pay well compared to other areas and if the air traffic controllers have to move they will move to places where more money can be made. We need to improve the infrastructure but this is wrong-headed."

Other members of the committee expressed similar concerns and agreed to look at the safety and economic impact of the proposal and to get the Auditor General for Scotland to examine the costs.

However, Hial insists the project is "absolutely critical" to a viable future for its lifeline transport services and the communities that rely on them.

A company spokesman said: "We are acting now to modernise our operations to ensure they are safe and sustainable for decades to come. If we do not, we cannot guarantee services in the future. Hial operates in a highly regulated environment and the Civil Aviation Authority would not permit any development which compromised safety."

He also stressed that the public petitions committee has received "considerable correspondence" from aviation industry experts "supportive of our approach".

Hial would welcome the opportunity to put its case to the committee, added the spokesman.

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