Air traffic control services for Sumburgh Airport are to be taken south as part of a major centralisation drive by Highlands and Islands Airports Limited (Hial).
The airport authority has confirmed it will transition the Sumburgh radar position into a “new contingency facility” ahead of eventually relocating it to a new Combined Surveillance Centre (CSC) in Inverness.
The transition is expected to be finished by the end of September next year, with full transition expected in early 2023.
The move comes as part of a drive, first announced in January 2018, to bring together air traffic management at five airports into the single location within the Highland capital. Hial says there are no planned reductions in staff as a result of the decision, although the Prospect Union says up to 60 jobs are at risk.
As well as Sumburgh, airports at Dundee, Inverness, Kirkwall and Stornoway will have their air traffic systems managed from the city’s New Century House.
The issue has been highlighted this week by isles MSP Beatrice Wishart, as well as her Highlands and Islands political rival, Jamie Halcro Johnston (see today’s Shetland Times).
They have both raised concerns, with the Liberal Democrat insisting there has been “little evidence of robust scrutiny” of the system.
Hial says digital tower technology is “proven” and currently operating all over the world, including Sweden, Norway and London City Airport in the UK.
It has highlighted cameras which offer air traffic controllers panoramic views of the airfield showing “more detail than is possible with the human eye”.
The move to deliver a remote tower and surveillance centre is the largest and most complex one Hial has ever undertaken.
Hial says staff, unions, airport managers and senior personnel have been involved throughout the process. The Scottish government has also been kept informed.
Managing director of the airport authority, Inglis Lyon, said: “The strategic programme decisions made by the board will move us into the implementation phase of the project and allow detailed operational decisions to be made.
“The acquisition of a base for the new Combined Surveillance Centre marks a significant next step in the project.
“It will allow us to move forward with planning and procurement of the relevant systems to safely deliver a state of the art air traffic control management system and give additional clarity to colleagues and stakeholders as we deliver this complex and challenging programme.
“Our focus continues to be on aviation service delivery and providing a safe, modern and efficient means of handling aircraft for the regions and the islands in the future.”
But Labour MSP Rhoda Grant has condemned the announcement, which is being made despite fierce opposition from communities and from the Prospect Union.
“From the day these proposals were first aired in 2017 I have received representation from local communities who are desperate to maintain the current system for safety reasons and to protect island jobs.
“I have been told that this project relies on super-high bandwidth to succeed. We all know that many of our remote and rural areas do not have this so how can Hial press on regardless?
“The proposals to downgrade services at Wick and Benbecula are astounding given the localities have been earmarked as space ports. These decisions also fly in the face of the Scottish government’s own recently published Islands Plan which seeks to protect and improve services and employment in island communities.
“Hial appears to be intent on pushing this through despite its own consultants identifying the ‘remote tower’ model as the most costly and risky option.
“While this decision fits with the Scottish government’s determination to centralise services out of local areas, it is an appalling decision and Hial and the Scottish government must stop these plans right now before remote air services are jeopardised and more local jobs are taken out of rural communities.”