The centralisation of Air Traffic Control (ATC) services is proceeding and Benbecula Airport is to be downgraded, Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd says.

Comhairle nan Eilean Siar has hit out at HIAL's "lack of ambition" for the Islands displayed in their announcement .

It was announced yesterday (Thursday January 16th) that Benbecula will be downgraded to an Aerodrome Flight Information Service (AFIS) resulting in a loss of jobs and an inability to grow air services in Benbecula.

Together with a loss of jobs at Stornoway as a result of centralising ATC services in Inverness, including those for Sumburgh, Dundee, Inverness and Kirkwall, there could be a loss of up to 20 jobs in the Islands, a significant number of skilled jobs.

The Comhairle has called on Scottish Government to intervene. Comhairle Leader Roddie Mackay said: “This is not an attitude or approach we would expect from a Scottish Government owned company.”

Councillor Uisdean Robertson, Comhairle nan Eilean Siar’s Chair of Transportation and Infrastructure, said: “It seems to me that HIAL are looking at Stornoway and Benbecula Airports as burdens rather than assets. They are intent on running them down with the resultant loss of employment.

"This displays an incredible lack of ambition for the future of air services to and from the Islands. We should be looking at how these assets can be grown and developed to best serve the communities of the Islands. I will be writing to the Minister highlighting that is against the principles of Community empowerment and the Islands Act.

"Centralisation of services and jobs is entirely contrary to what Island authorities have been working towards over the past few years and indeed is completely at odds with the Islands Act. I will be calling for an Islands Impact Assessment, in line with Island proofing, to be carried out on the implications of these shortsighted measures for our communities.

"I will be calling upon Ministers to ensure that agencies like HIAL grow their staff headcount in our islands not remove valuable jobs and families from our communities.”

Councillor Robertson also highlighted that safety and resilience were at risk of being comprised under the proposed measures for centralization. He said: ”Anyone who has seen the weather this week in Benbecula and Stornoway will know that systems and technology could be at risk. I will be contacting the Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Infrastructure and Connectivity, Michael Matheson. I also propose to meet with my counterparts in Shetland and Orkney who share similar concerns.

"Our communities have extreme transport challenges ahead. Our ferry services have deteriorated because of ill-thought-through decision making made by mainland based management. It is sad that HIAL is making the same mistake.

"HIAL are putting their own priorities and dogma way above the needs of their customers and partners. Taxpayers money is being spent on a needless vanity project. It is utterly unacceptable in this day and age for a publicly funded body to behave in this high handed way.”

Highlands and Islands Labour MSP, Rhoda Grant, has also condemned the announcement that plans to centralise ATC in the Highlands and Islands will go ahead, despite fierce opposition from local communities, from the Prospect Union and from a cross section of MSPs.

HIAL said the change will modernise air traffic control but the Prospect Union say the plan puts 60 jobs at risk and described it as "poorly thought through". It will rely on remote towers, which will not need to be staffed, feeding information to a new surveillance centre in Inverness.

Rhoda Grant said “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.

“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.”