LIFELINE airline services are set to be grounded after a union confirmed air traffic control staff are to go on strike in a dispute over cuts.
State-owned Highlands and Islands Airports Limited (HIAL) has received formal notification from Prospect of strike action by air traffic controllers at its 11 airports in the Scottish Highlands, the Northern Isles and the Western Isles.
The union have warned that the long-term future of lifeline services on Scottish islands is “at risk” through “staggering” plans to centralise air traffic control for seven airports and have triggered public safety fears.
Loganair has confirmed that it will be unable to provide flights at airports operated by Hial during the strike.
Prospect says ministers of the Scottish Government have refused to even meet those communities involved to discuss the impact this project would have on them.
The one day work stoppage, which has been criticised by HIAL will be effective from just after midnight on July 29.
Prospect has confirmed that current industrial action short of a strike will remain in place before and after the day of strike action.
It marks an escalation of a dispute over centralising some operations.
HIAL has been pushing ahead with plans to relocate air traffic work to one “remote site” in Inverness prompting fears that public safety at risk, according to the union.
Under Hial’s plan, air traffic control for Inverness, Sumburgh in Shetland, Dundee, Kirkwall in Orkney, and Stornoway in the Western Isles would be controlled centrally.
Unmanned towers would feed information to a hub in Inverness.
It is claimed it will involve the removal of seven existing towers at Inverness, Dundee, Shetland, Orkney, Wick, Benbecula and Stornoway.
The Prospect union said the move would result in the loss of 50 jobs.
Since January the Prospect members have refused to work overtime, co-operate with Hial’s air traffic project and refused to assist in the training for new recruits.
David Avery, Prospect negotiator, said: “Our members have been forced into this escalation of industrial action to protect the communities they serve. HIAL’s plan will remove high value skilled jobs from economies that can ill-afford to lose them, having a substantial negative impact on those communities.
“The Scottish Government has the power to step in on this debate but the minster hasn’t even taken the time to meet the local councils involved, or indeed is own MSPs, to discuss the impact of the remote towers project. We have since had the bizarre situation where UK minister Michael Gove discussed the matter with Comhairle nan Eilean Siar while the minister refuses. “Prospect members are not averse to change but it has to be done in a way that maintains jobs and skills in remote communities. HIAL needs to halt these plans now so our members can get on with their jobs.”
Loganair said the industrial action will affect six airports: Inverness, Sumburgh, Kirkwall, Stornoway, Benbecula and Dundee an it will be cancelling all flights on July 29 to and from the five airports impacted.
It said that customers booked to travel on this date will have the option to transfer their booking without any change fee or difference in fare to another Loganair flight – on an alternative route if they wish – or to obtain a full refund if they no longer wish to travel.
Jonathan Hinkles, chief executive of Loganair, said: “We are hugely disappointed by this strike action by the union representing Air Traffic Controllers at HIAL airports, and can only ask for our customers’ understanding that we are unable to avoid the inconvenience that these flight cancellations will inevitably cause to travel plans, hospital appointments and island deliveries of freight and mail.
Inglis Lyon, HIAL’s managing director, said: “We are extremely disappointed to have received this formal notice without any prior intimation from Prospect.
“This action will inflict additional disruption and inconvenience on passengers at such a crucial time for the communities of the Highlands and Islands. It will also have an impact on the aviation sector which serves them and which is seeking to get back on its feet following the worst of the pandemic.
“We will work closely with our airline partners to keep disruption to a minimum and apologise for the undoubted inconvenience this action will cause.
“Given the positive response from Prospect to the policies relating to the modernisation project this is bitterly disappointing. We ask that Prospect work with HIAL on completing the policy work before considering strike action and to meet with HIAL in the interim to agree how this might happen.”
The Prospect union, has said that the long-term future of lifeline services is at risk through the plans said some members were unwilling to relocate.
An escalation of industrial action introduced in March included an overtime ban and a refusal of extended hours except for search and rescue, emergency and medical flights.
It also involves a refusal to commence training of new controllers.
That action was in addition to a continuous action short of a strike notified on the December 21, which started on January 4 consisting of a refusal to engage with proposals to centralise air traffic control for seven airports which involve shutting down seven traffic towers.
Previous analysis from Prospect, which represents air traffic control staff at HIAL airports, suggested that moving air traffic control to Inverness would remove around £1.5m of direct employment from rural and island economies and would “run contrary” to the recently published Islands Plan produced by the Scottish Government which owns HIAL.
Proposals for a single remote tower centre – said to be a UK first -were first mooted three years ago as part of HIAL plans to “future-proof” its operations with an estimated £28 million investment over the next ten to 15 years.
Air traffic controllers would be moved to a central hub, the location of which had not then been decided.
HIAL said in December it would continue its dialogue with the union and has denied it was proposing job cuts.
In May executives at Hial insisted their controversial plans to centralise air traffic control are on track despite a damning independent review of the project.
Digital Scotland, which describes itself as “Scotland’s hub for digital transformation and innovation”, rated its confidence in the project being successfully delivered as “amber-red” after flagging 12 areas of concern in its technology assurance review “health check”.
The leaked report suggests the whole project is “in doubt” unless urgent action is taken to address “major” issues and concerns.
Shortcomings flagged in the report included:
“A lack of clear coherent visibility and transparency across the programme and down to the constituent projects. Significant shortfalls in programme management including risk management, planning and resource.
“Misalignment of governance with the needs of the programme, combined with a lack of clarity regarding roles, responsibilities, delegations, approvals and decision-making.
“The level of resourcing and skills and capabilities are currently well below what would be required for a programme of this size, complexity and criticality.”
But Hial chief operating officer Gary Cobb said the review had achieved what it set out to do, namely highlighting areas for improvement – and he said 10 of Digital Scotland’s 12 action plan recommendations had already been addressed.
To assist customers in bringing forward their travel arrangements before and after the strike, there will be extra services on the evening of Wednesday 28 July departing Kirkwall at 19:00 and arriving into Aberdeen at 19:50 and from Aberdeen to Kirkwall on Friday 30 July departing at 06:10 and arriving into Kirkwall at 07:00.
Loganair plans to operate larger aircraft on several other services on Wednesday 28 July and Friday 30 July to provide additional seats to help customers re-arrange their travel plans.
Flights to and from Islay, Barra, Tiree and Campbeltown will be unaffected as the Flight Information Service officers who oversee arrivals and departures at these airports are not part of the dispute.
Loganair’s teams are checking whether it may be possible to provide inter-isles air services within the Orkney Islands on 29 July and will provide a further update on this as soon as possible.