Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd (HIAL) were offered a sensible, safer and better value for money option by their own consultants in the ongoing dispute about centralising air traffic control (ATC) services, said transport chiefs in the Western Isles.

The comments follow a debate in the Scottish Parliament last week on a motion condemning the proposals by Shetland MSP, Beatrice Wishart. Widespread support was expressed by Highlands and Islands MSPs.

HIAL’s proposals also now include downgrading Benbecula Airport to an Aerodrome Flight Information Service (AFIS). The Comhairle has previously criticised the move as a lack of ambition on HIAL’s part. 

Comhairle Leader Roddie Mackay said: “The Scottish Government need to reflect where they are being led by HIAL and reconsider where this is going. At the moment what is being proposed will result in a waste of tax payers’ money.

“Why are HIAL pursuing this option when they were offered a perfectly sensible, safer and better value option by their own consultants? Indeed the consultants, Helios, identified HIAL’s preferred option as the riskiest and costliest option and there are alternative options for modernisation.” 

Councillor Uisdean Robertson, the Comhairle’s Chairman of Transportation and Infrastructure, said: “HIAL is a public company wholly owned by Scottish Ministers, similar to the management arrangements for Cal-Mac and CMAL.

“No one needs reminded of how poor decisions on ferry provision has resulted in ferry chaos for island communities. One would have expected that more due diligence would be exercised in ensuring that the same thing did not happen to our air services. However, it appears that no lessons have been learnt.

“Once again we are seeing a mainland based, Government owned company taking decisions which detrimentally affect those of us who live in the Islands. Centralisation is not the way ahead and is certainly not in line with the Islands Act, Island proofing and community empowerment.

“Instead we are going down an ill-advised route that will result in an expensive service for the Islands at great and unnecessary cost and a downgrading of Benbecula Airport costing jobs in an area in which we should all be working to grow the economy.

“I would urge the Cabinet Secretary to listen to those who HIAL purport to serve. And if HIAL need reminding of who that is – the clue is in their name – Highlands and Islands Airports.”

MSPs last week attacked HIAL's proposals for Western Isles' airports and ferries.

Highlands and Islands Labour MSP Rhoda Grant condemned plans from HIAL to centralise ATC to Inverness and urged the Scottish Government to step in and stop the “vanity project”.

In a debate in Holyrood on Thursday (January 23) Mrs Grant told MSPs that the plans would cause harm to the Air Traffic Controllers, the families and the economic ecosystem of vulnerable rural communities.

Mrs Grant, who has been campaigning against the plans since 2017, said: “The overwhelming feeling from staff currently employed is that most of them are wholeheartedly against the centralisation plan, but clauses in the contracts of new staff over the last couple of years have made provision for relocation from local airfields to Inverness in the future showing that the decision was taken some time ago without proper consultation, or an Islands Impact Assessment.

“We are being told that an Islands Impact Assessment will be done, but the contract is already out to tender. Benbecula and Wick are already being downgraded. The decision has been made and they are treating this as a tick box exercise, it’s a farce.

Mrs Grant said: “Staff have put forward alternative proposals for safe and cost-effective modernisation which retains local skills, jobs and infrastructure, but there is no evidence that these have ever been considered.

“HIAL invested time and money recruiting and training local staff; people vested in their communities who wanted to live there. They are now throwing that away – a slap in the face to the communities they purport to serve. Staff who have invested their hearts and souls in local communities are now being forced to consider moving for employment and give up their homes. The personal cost is already proving too much.”

Mrs Grant added afterwards: “This vanity project needs to be stopped now, before it causes irrevocable harms to Scotland’s communities.”

SNP warned that HIAL plans are losing confidence of island communities.

Highlands and Islands Conservative MSP Donald Cameron agreed with Mrs Grant after MSPs debated the plans. “There is great concern across our island communities about the implications of HIAL’s plans for centralising air traffic control.

“Even local SNP politicians are expressing unease about the proposals which are, after all, being put forward by an organisation wholly owned by the Scottish Government and ultimately responsible to SNP ministers.

“The Scottish Government failed to intervene in the CalMac ferry fiasco which has severely undermined the confidence of island communities in the government’s capacity to look after their transport connections. It must not repeat that failure with our vital air links too.”

And he reiterated his criticism of the CalMac ferry fiasco. 

Mr Cameron spoke out after Wednesday’s meeting of the rural economy and connectivity committee at Holyrood where MSPs learnt more about the disastrous mismanagement of the two-ferry contract, which includes the vessel destined to be used on the Skye-Harris-North Uist triangle.

Mr Cameron said: “I am very concerned at the impact this continuing fiasco may have on business confidence in the Western Isles. We simply cannot afford any more bad news about our vital infrastructure. It is putting jobs and prosperity at risk.

“How can we hope to persuade people to set up businesses and create jobs here if the Government fails to take responsibility for vital publicly-funded projects? They should have been knocking heads together, rather than just wringing their hands.

“The Western Isles needs a thriving business sector if we are to address depopulation, and these revelations demonstrate all too clearly that the SNP Government simply does not understand that.”