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Tender exercise for HIAL remote tower project scrapped

Kirkwall Airport control tower.

The move to centralise air traffic control services across the Highlands and Islands region has suffered a fresh blow, with the Scottish Government confirming that the tender exercise for the remote towers project has been cancelled.

Transport Minister Graeme Dey also confirmed that £9million has been spent on Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd (HIAL) controversial air traffic management strategy (ATMS) — of which the remote towers plan was a central part — though he stressed that ATMS is a “long-term programme consisting of numerous different individual projects”.

It was announced last October that the tender exercise had been halted following progress in talks between HIAL and Prospect, the union which represents the air traffic controllers.

The controllers had taken industrial action in protest at the plans which proposed that controllers be removed from airports across the region, including Kirkwall, and replaced with a single, remote tower in Inverness.

Mr Dey said that HIAL “felt it would be inappropriate and unfair to expect tenderers to remain engaged in the procurement process in circumstances where the timescale for, and scope and extent of possible future remote air traffic provision is unclear.”

Liam McArthur said that it was never the case that centralisation was the only option for modernising air traffic services, and now “finally the government and HIAL have been forced to come clean”.

The MSP said: “Confirmation by the minister that the ‘remote tower’ procurement has been cancelled is welcome. It comes, however, only after millions in public funds have been spent on an ill-conceived vanity project opposed across parties and the communities most directly affected.

“No-one disputes the need to modernise air traffic services, which support operations on our lifeline air routes. Sadly, months and millions have been wasted by SNP Ministers and HIAL on a centralisation that was never going to get off the ground.”

Meanwhile, Alistair Carmichael MP said that the “costly and unnecessary” plans have ended “not with a bang but a whimper”, and called for reform of the board of HIAL to ensure the communities that the airport operator serves are heard.

“Above all we need to reflect on how this sorry state of affairs came to be in the first place,” said Mr Carmichael.

“Retreat on the centralisation plan is only a temporary fix of the underlying problem. HIAL is supposed to be accountable and responsive to the needs of the entire Highlands and Islands and it is clearly not living up to that aspiration.

“If we are to avoid another similar fiasco in the future then we need to look at further reform to ensure that our communities are heard on the board of HIAL.”

Richard Hardy, Prospect National Secretary, welcomed the announcement and said that the union and HIAL remain in “sensitive negotiations” in relation to the future delivery of air traffic services.

A HIAL spokesperson said: “We have been clear that ATMS is the best option to maintain the long-term sustainability of air services for the Highlands and Islands. Nevertheless, we are committed to working with Prospect and our air traffic control colleagues to try and develop a new solution involving compromise by both sides.

“We would encourage those with an interest in ensuring the delivery of a safe, resilient, and sustainable air traffic operation for island communities to recognise the delicate nature of these negotiations and engage in constructive dialogue to reach that end.”