Campaigners against plans to radically change air traffic control structures are warning that the issue will not go away, even though current circumstances may have placed the debate at the bottom of the political agenda.

A petition to the Scottish Parliament submitted on behalf of Benbecula Community Council opened for signatures just as the Coronavirus lockdown began in late March, with a deadline for signatories of 6 May.

Petitioners Alasdair MacEachen, John Doig and Peter Henderson described current plans by Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd (HIAL), to centralise aspects of island air traffic control to Inverness and introduce an aerodrome flight information service (AFIS) in Benbecula instead of the current air traffic control (ATC) as ‘the costliest and riskiest’ option of all those considered, even according to the airport company’s own consultancy report.

The aim of the petition is to get an independent review of HIAL’s air traffic management strategy, after fears were raised over safety issues and loss of jobs from small island economies. The petition urges that plans are suspended until the UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) have published their guidance.

But petitioner Alasdair MacEachen admitted today (Wednesday 22 April) that other events have overtaken them, with the Coronavirus crisis likely to slow everything down – from implementation of HIAL’s plans to the process of representation in Parliament.

Alasdair said: “This whole situation was unexpected, so I can’t say where priorities will lie after the crisis is over. However, from a local point of view it is obvious that the Highlands and Islands are going to take a real hit from Coronavirus.

“HIAL’s plans are just going to add even more damage, with the loss of good jobs and the removal of young families from our communities. They haven’t fully assessed or demonstrated the impact their plans will have on the islands.

“As to what will happen once our petition deadline has passed, we will have to wait and see. I was expecting that we would have a date to appear at Edinburgh but, as with everything else, that now seems to be up in the air.

“But it doesn’t mean that this issue has gone away. When life returns to normal we are going to want to see these issues seriously and properly considered.” 

The petitioners also say air traffic control officers should be called on to give evidence about the proposed changes: “as the only experts in air traffic control at HIAL airports.”

Signatories to the petition agree that the whole plan should be reconsidered, for economic, social and safety reasons. One said: “Seriously flawed idea in my opinion and the timing of it is all wrong. Island economies are fragile at the best of times and employment sits at the core of this. Proposals like this do nothing to mitigate that fragility and should be resisted robustly.”

And a former air traffic controller said: “I'll be the first to agree that technological advancements are allowing some great new innovations in aviation. However, I also believe that moving too quickly on remote tower automation could be very damaging to the industry. Once you remove the on-field human intervention, you reduce your capacity to react to unplanned events and operational irregularities. Not to mention the decrease in pilot confidence in and around your airport. Too much too fast HIAL, take this back to the drafting table, for everyone's peace of mind.”

Almost 600 people have so far signed the online petition at www.parliament.scot/GettingInvolved/Petitions/airservices.