Plans for ‘remote’ air traffic control towers move ahead

Plans to centralise air traffic control services are moving steadily ahead, despite warnings that the controversial idea was “fraught with danger”.

Airport chiefs say an agreement has been reached in principle to progress the far-reaching proposals.

The air traffic control tower at Sumburgh Airport. Photo: Ronnie Robertson

Highlands and Islands Airports Limited (Hial) says it is set to “future proof” its operations with an estimated £28 million investment in “state-of-the-art” air traffic management technology.

Hial says the “long-term remote towers” and “centralised approach surveillance control programme” will mirror a project in Sweden, which it insists has run successfully.
It adds staff recruitment, an increase in regulation and cost pressures are behind the move.

The organisation says no decisions have been made in terms of the location of the proposed operational centre which will be the first remote tower centre of its kind in the UK.

Sumburgh is one of the airports where the new proposals will be implemented, along with other airports in Hial’s portfolio.

The plans first emerged in May last year, when concern was raised by the vice-chairman of the Sumburgh Airport Consultative Committee, Allison Duncan, that “human safety” risked being compromised.

Isles MP Alistair Carmichael later warned the centralised approach was “fraught with danger”.

Hial says it will now hold further talks with staff, stakeholder groups and politicians around the implementation of the project. It says there will be no immediate changes to the existing operations.

Managing Director, Inglis Lyon, said the decision was significant for the business: “Our overriding priority is and will always be, to deliver safe and secure air navigation services that will keep our airports open for local communities for the long term.

“Having already involved our air traffic control staff and key stakeholders in the full review of our air traffic management operations by leading aviation consultancy, Helios, the board have agreed in principle with the Helios recommendation to further pursue the remote towers solution.

“Given the nature and location of our business and airports, we are already managing a number of challenges. These include staff recruitment and retention, increasing regulation, and increasing pressure on costs.


Our overriding priority is and will always be, to deliver safe and secure air navigation services that will keep our airports open for local communities for the long term. INGLIS LYON


“Our role is to ensure that the airport network benefits from investment in its long-term future, secured through new technology.”

Chairwoman Lorna Jack said the board was clear on the rationale and the benefits likely to be delivered by the new air traffic management solution proposed.

“This is a major investment for the business, but an investment which is required to ensure that we do what we are here to do which is to keep people flying, to ensure the long-term future for the business and our people and to continue to deliver new opportunities for the people of the Highlands and Islands and Tayside to connect with new locations around the globe,” she added.

“Increasing traffic demands, as well as resultant regulatory changes within the aviation industry, means that to do nothing is not an option and we will work with our people and all stakeholder groups to ensure that the proposals work for all involved.

“This is an opportunity to invest in new high-tech skills as well as in new technology and our people will have the opportunity to be involved in delivering the air traffic controllers of the future.”


Add Your Comment
  • Suzy Jolly

    • January 8th, 2018 18:16

    What happened to island-proofing legislation then?

    Just because other airports around the world are using it doesn’t mean it is the correct course of action for here. Have the ‘powers that be’ learnt nothing from previous disasters?

    Never mind, the countdown to corporate manslaughter/homicide charges begins …

  • John Jamieson

    • January 10th, 2018 12:13

    Why has Hial not made a decision on the location of the proposed operational centre which will be the first remote tower centre of its kind in the UK ? Is there some problem with setting out the requirements for a location in the north of Scotland compared to the one in Sweden ?
    The Sumburgh Airport Consultative Committee should ask HIAL to site it at it’s busiest airport, Sumburgh.
    If their proposed remote towers and centralised approach surveillance control system is robust and reliable then there should be no problem in siting the operational centre in Shetland.
    If it is not robust and reliable enough to serve all airports from Shetland then it is not robust and reliable enough to serve Sumburgh or any other remote airport from another location.

  • Steven Jarmson

    • January 10th, 2018 17:10

    Why don’t HIAL use Shetland as the hub for the centralised system and run the airports in Scotland from Shetland??
    Why does centralisation always mean moving away from areas like Shetland?
    I put it down to lazy thinking, show some imagination and create a hub in Shetland which will attract talent to the isles rather than taking it away to places like Scotland??

  • Paul Meyer

    • January 10th, 2018 22:29

    What?! Auto control towers, pilotless planes and cars – has the world gone completely mad?


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