UNIONS have asked transport minister Graeme Dey to intervene following fears that plans to shut down air traffic towers in Scotland will pose a health and safety threat.
Europe’s biggest transport union has warned that plans to centralise air traffic control for seven airports would “open up considerable risk to communities”.
It comes as Mr Dey came under fire for ‘failing’ to engage with air traffic control staff over concerns about the plans.
Transport Scotland said the minister had met with Western Isles Council where the “modernisation” of air traffic control services was on the agenda.
The European Transport Workers Federation (ETWF), which represents 5m transport workers in 41 countries across said there was particular concern for the operation of emergency services such as medical flights.
And it said downgrading of services particularly at Benbecula and Wick comes with safety concerns as the air traffic control services will be downgraded to an aerodrome flight information service which “simply removes” the ability to issue instructions to arriving and departing aircraft.
Mr Dey, had been approached by air traffic control staff to meet over the issues – but Prospect say they were told he was unavailable.
Scottish Government-owned Highlands and Islands Airports Limited (HIAL) is pushing ahead with plans to relocate air traffic work to one “remote site” in Inverness.
It will involve the removal of seven existing towers at Inverness, Dundee, Shetland, Orkney, Wick, Benbecula and Stornoway.
It has dismissed what it called “alarmist” claims over safety.
Prospect, which represents air traffic controllers who have recently been on strike over proposal to move jobs from the islands to Inverness, said the failure to meet was a “missed opportunity” and called on the Mr Dey to urgently engage with the issue.
Prospect negotiator David Avery said: “It is disappointing that the minister did not use this opportunity to speak to air traffic staff about the impact of HIAL’s remote towers plan on individuals and on the economy of the islands.
“Ultimately the Scottish Government have the power to step in and force a rethink on these plans, and it is incumbent on them to listen to the serious concerns that have been raised.
“This missed opportunity makes it even more vital that the minister takes the next available opportunity to meet with Prospect and local politicians to engage with our concerns.”
The plans also involves a further downgrade of air traffic services on the ground at Benbecula and Wick. It is understood that involves becoming a Flight Information Service Officer (FISO) service – which unions say offer no “deconfliction” service to keep aircraft out of each other”s path.
In a letter to the Scottish Government, ETWF have drawn ministers attention to what they call “the huge safety risks in implementing such a decision” reminding the authorities of the imperative need to maintain their current level of specialized air traffic services.
They say this is crucial due to the nature of both the airports and the traffic they currently serve, such as scheduled air services, ferry flights, and offshore helicopter operations, and the “very specific weather conditions in this part of Europe”.
Analysis from Prospect, which represents air traffic control staff at HIAL airports, suggests that moving air traffic control to Inverness will remove up to 60 skilled jobs and 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.
The ETWF”s acting general secretary has written to Mr Dey saying: “It is essential that the Scottish Government intervene and understand the consequences of this decision for its citizens, workers and broader society in the Highlands and Islands.
“While these decisions may seem like a cost exercise on paper, such decisions have a direct impact on the livelihoods of individuals and the communities in which they live in.
“In our view the safety and development of these communities should be prioritised over all other concerns, including cost efficiency and profit.”
A Transport Scotland spokesman said: “The decision to modernise air traffic control will ensure that air services can continue in the future.
“The option chosen by HIAL in 2018 will improve resilience, safety and reliability of services. It remains the case that no alternative has been proposed that addresses the issues that the programme aims to resolve.
“HIAL continues to engage with its staff, unions, airline customers and other interested parties as the programme is implemented.”
A HIAL spokesman said: “We are dismayed and disappointed that alarmist and misleading claims are yet again being made regarding ATMS. To be clear, HIAL would never introduce any system that was unsafe and our regulators would not permit us to do so. HIAL is in regular dialogue with the Civil Aviation Authority, which is satisfied with how the project is proceeding.
“The introduction of an Aerodrome Flight Information Service (AFIS) at both Benbecula and Wick airports will ensure these airfields have a viable and sustainable future, based on a proportionate level of service aligned to the volume and complexity of air traffic using these airports. AFIS – which already operates at four other HIAL airports – will provide the continuation of an air traffic service that is safe, efficient and regulatory compliant.
“The Scottish Government has been fully appraised at each stage of the ATMS process, as has Prospect. We continue to engage with our colleagues and stakeholders as we progress this challenging and necessary change management programme that will secure the future of sustainable aviation services for the communities we serve.”