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MSP Gail Ross voices concern about airport plans

By Jean Gunn

Gail Ross is concerned about the plans by Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd to centralise air traffic control in Inverness. Picture: DGS
Gail Ross is concerned about the plans by Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd to centralise air traffic control in Inverness. Picture: DGS

NORTH MSP Gail Ross was among those at Holyrood voicing concerns about the controversial plans by Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd (Hial) to centralise air traffic control.

During a debate in the Scottish Parliament on Thursday, the SNP MSP for Caithness, Sutherland and Ross warned that the proposals could be in direct contravention of new Scottish Government laws aimed at protecting island communities.

As reported previously, Mrs Ross is concerned about the impact on employment, with Prospect, the union that represents air traffic control staff at Hial airports, stating that up to 60 jobs could be affected by the plan to centralise air traffic control operations in Inverness.

Air traffic management at five airports – Sumburgh, Dundee, Inverness, Kirkwall and Stornoway – will be brought together, with air traffic services at Wick John O'Groats Airport and Benbecula earmarked for downgrading.

Mrs Ross said: "I was concerned when I heard of Hial’s plan to centralise air traffic control operations in Inverness.

"No matter what anyone’s opinion is on the decision, we must agree that it will fundamentally change the way in which air traffic services are provided at our rural Scottish airports. The decision will bring considerable disruption to affected staff and I fear that compulsory redundancies will be necessary – something that the Scottish Government and I are firmly against."

After raising concerns about a direct contravention of the Islands (Scotland) Act 2018, Mrs Ross said Hial had since acknowledged the fact and she welcomed the decision to carry out an island impact assessment.

However, the MSP felt that that the assessment should have been conducted prior to publishing the proposed plans.

On the question of air traffic staff commuting to Inverness, she felt it was impossible to imagine the employees located on islands committing to making that journey.

"Those who live outside the commuting zone now face having relocation forced upon them," she said.

"From my correspondence with Hial, there seems to be a lack of clarity on how subsidised travel for commuters will be provided and Hial has also acknowledged that there are no provisions in place for staff accommodation facilities in Inverness.

"I acknowledge that the plans include investment in areas outside Inverness. New radar surveillance equipment will be introduced at my local airport in Wick and those working with the new equipment must do so on site, so there is a degree of flexibility in place for those who do not want to relocate to Inverness."

Mrs Ross went on: "Although I truly understand the apprehension of Prospect and its members, I know that Hial and the Scottish Government have a track record of working hard to keep connectivity and infrastructure in place in my constituency."

She reminded fellow MSPs of the determination Hial and the Scottish Government had shown in sustaining the air services to and from Wick John O’Groats Airport over the winter period.

Mrs Ross concluded: "I can and do give credit to Hial for its efforts to preserve connectivity to the far north. But I urge it to continue its hard work, to engage with key stakeholders and to recognise when plans need to be amended as the current project progresses."

She also urged Hial to listen to other stakeholders and provide reassurance to the affected workers and relevant unions.

In addition, the MSP spoke of the safety issues that might arise from Hial's proposals.

Meanwhile, Highlands and Islands Labour MSP Rhoda Grant condemned the "harmful plans" to centralise air traffic control and urged the government to step in and stop what she called the "vanity project".

During the debate Mrs Grant said the plans would cause harm to the air traffic controllers and the economic ecosystem of vulnerable rural communities.

Mrs Grant, who has been campaigning against the plans since 2017, said: “I have been speaking to air traffic controllers for some years now about this proposal.

"The overwhelming feeling from staff currently employed is that most of them are wholeheartedly against the centralisation plan, but clauses in the contracts of new staff over the last couple of years have made provision for relocation from local airfields to Inverness in the future – showing that the decision was taken some time ago without proper consultation, or an islands impact assessment."

She added: “We are being told that an islands impact assessment will be done, but the contract is already out to tender. Benbecula and Wick are already being downgraded. The decision has been made and they are treating this as a tick-box exercise – it’s a farce."

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