By JOHN ROBERTSON
THE OIL industry is more than a year late starting major improvements to Scatsta Airport despite having bounced SIC councillors into lending £8 million of public money for the works as a matter of urgency.
Members of the board of the Shetland Charitable Trust property arm Slap bent over backwards at the start of last year to stop oil companies carrying out their threat to pull out of the North Mainland airport within weeks, taking their business and nearly 100 jobs elsewhere, such as Sumburgh or Aberdeen.
At the 11th hour the two sides struck an agreement which tied the Integrated Aviation Consortium (IAC) to Scatsta for at least another five years in return for a new hangar and passenger terminal to improve the handling of offshore helicopters and platform workers. As has been reported previously, the deal was done in April with such haste it was only signed off by councillors hours before they were legally barred by election laws from conducting SIC-related business.
Yet the project has proceeded at a snail’s pace on the industry’s side ever since. The hangar’s construction by local contractor Garriock Brothers was finally to get under way this week but more last-minute hitches arose.
It is so late it means helicopter operator Bristow has no room for all its six brand-new Sikorsky S-92 machines which went into service in April, bought at a cost of around £11m each. Until the hangar is completed the company has to base two or three of these sophisticated aircraft at a hangar at Sumburgh Airport most nights, flying them up and down empty at considerable extra cost for fuel, more frequent maintenance and lost flying time.
With the hangar expected to take the bulk of a year to make ready it amounts to an expensive ongoing problem caused by the unexpected delay in moving the airport improvements ahead.
Bristow head of commercial Alan Grant said it was “just one of those things” and it was wise to protect the valuable helicopters rather than leave some outside every night at Scatsta. “It’s better being safe than sorry. The risk of losing an aircraft due to weather damage is going to be an awful lot more costly.”
So far no plans have been lodged with the SIC for the proposed new passenger terminal at Scatsta. The whole project is being managed for Bristow by international architects and consultants Atkins. A request for an estimated completion date for the hangar went unanswered this week.
Although the lack of progress by the oil consortium might make the council and charitable trust appear a little foolish for their haste in throwing money about, it may be that they have pulled off a smart bit of business rather than having been taken for a ride – the oil consortium will very soon have to start paying a hugely increased rent for the airport even without its improvements. According to one source its annual bill will rocket by around £1m when the first instalment falls due in a few months’ time.
Charitable trust acting general manager Jeff Goddard said this week the details of the deal were confidential but confirmed the consortium would pay the £8m back over five years, which gives an annual rent increase in the region of £1.6m. He said Slap would be left with an enhanced airport if the consortium did walk away at its first opportunity when the agreement ends. If it stays, Slap will move into profit on its deal.
The controversial deal was savaged at the time by SIC councillor Gussie Angus and by former helicopter pilot Gordon Mitchell, who was then the Dunrossness councillor. Mr Mitchell subsequently lost his seat at the elections and perhaps not surprisingly felt the financial inducement to save Scatsta carried with it “a perception of maladministration”. Contacted this week he did not feel inclined to comment further.
Sources blame part of the year-long delay on disagreements over hangar design between consortium members. Bristow is in the consortium and Mr Grant confirmed there had been extensive debate over different types of hangar structure but blamed the hold-ups partly on other issues, including the need to get approval from the Civil Aviation Authority and SIC planning and even having to get the site – which is a disused wartime runway – checked for explosives.
He said: “I wouldn’t say there’s been any disagreement at all. It has just taken longer due to other priorities and finding time to go through all the various aspects and steps we have had to go through.
“Everything seemed to conspire against us. We wanted to fully consider every option regarding position of the hangar and capacity before we finally committed. The last thing we wanted to do was start off and find with hindsight that we hadn’t looked at every available option. ”
Among the options was what he called more cutting-edge technologies before they settled on a more traditional-style hangar.
It was October before a plan for a temporary hangar was lodged with the SIC, the roof of which was to be a “PVC-covered polyester tarpaulin”, according to publicly available documentation. It was superseded five months later by a plan for a larger and more substantial structure, which was granted planning approval.
The building will go up close to the existing smaller hangar. Mr Grant said: “We’re looking forward to working in the new facilities once they’re finished.”
The airport’s fleet of Bristow helicopters does about 75 flights a week, or 18 a day, to and from oilfields in the northern North Sea and west of Shetland, mainly for companies in the consortium, which, until recently, consisted of Shell, BP, Petrofac, CNR, Bristow and BP Sullom Voe.
The main user of seats in the past was Shell but it has been selling off its assets in the area to companies, including Fairfield Energy, which has become a new member of the consortium. Further changes in membership can be expected after Shell sold six fields off Unst last month to the Abu Dhabi National Energy Company’s subsidiary Taqa. It is hiring the Aberdeen-based Wood Group to manage its operations in the Tern, Eider, Cormorant North, South Cormorant, Kestrel and Pelican fields, whose workers go through Scatsta.