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The controversial project to centralise Highlands and Islands air traffic control functions in Inverness has received a major alert warning in a survey of its progress.

A Technology Assurance Review conducted in January this year by Digital Scotland for the Scottish Government concluded: “Successful delivery of the project/programme is in doubt with major risks or issues apparent in a number of key areas. Urgent action is needed to ensure these are addressed, and whether resolution is feasible.”

Following an independent scoping study to assess the options for Air Navigation Service Provision (ANSP) at the 11 airports controlled by Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd, approval to begin the present Air Traffic Management Strategy (ATMS) was granted by the Scottish Government in 2018. The programme has been under way since later that year.

One of the aspects which the Digital Scotland report pointed to, is the sheer novelty of the proposals.  The report states: “The programme is subject to significant regulatory requirements at both national and international level from the CAA and ICAO.

“As with all heavily regulated and safety focused sectors, the ATMS Safety Case must be approved before service can commence and HIAL is well used to meeting these types of regulatory requirements.

“However, whilst operating using Remote Towers per-se are not new, ATMS is breaking new ground in certain aspects of its proposals and some delay is being and could be further expected whilst the CAA in particular considers these.

“At present this is focused on the Surveillance project which cannot proceed with its procurement until a CAA ruling on co-operative surveillance (requiring all aircraft to carry and operate transponders) and for Controlled Airspace has been made.

“We note that the programme is making every effort to maintain ongoing communication with the CAA regarding its deliberations but timescales for a decision are unclear.”

The proposals have run into heavy opposition from the staff involved who are members of the Prospect trade union and have been undertaking disruptive industrial action since the start of the year.  It is also opposed or being criticised by local councils, MPs and others throughout the Scottish islands.

Na h-Eileanan an Iar MP, Angus MacNeil told Graeme Dey MSP, the new Transport Minister and Mairi Gougeon MSP, the new Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and Islands recently: “Clearly the islands have to be protected by maintaining the HIAL jobs and saving the public purse a lot of money.  I would look to both Ministers to engage fully with this issue and not to let HIAL empire-build in Inverness at the expense of communities.”

HIAL has regularly rejected any criticism of the plans. HIAL managing director Inglis Lyon said in March: “We would not be undertaking this hugely complex project unless we believed it was absolutely necessary to do so. We have repeatedly said ATMS is the only option that allows us to move forward in a way that ensures the long-term future of air services for the Highlands and Islands and that remains the case. For its part Prospect has repeatedly failed to provide a credible alternative.

“Notwithstanding that HIAL operates a no redundancy policy, Prospect repeats its inaccurate claim that HIAL will make 50 staff redundant. Our air traffic controllers are highly-valued colleagues, and we will work closely with them as we go through a period of significant change and necessary modernisation in the way air traffic management is delivered.”