HIGHLAND airport chiefs are "gambling" with people’s safety by scrapping air traffic controllers, it has been claimed.
The Prospect union, which represents staff at Inverness and the other Scottish airports, also warned that jobs would be threatened and the move would damage local economies.
Highlands and Islands Airports Limited (Hial) defended the decision, insisting it made financial sense and that safety was always the top priority.
The union’s leaders said a substantial report spelling out the switch to a centralised system would be fully considered by their members over the coming days. They will also discuss the implications with Hial.
Hial aims to "future proof" its operations with an estimated £28 million investment in new air traffic technology over the next 10 to 15 years.
Air traffic control for Scotland’s regional airports could operate from a single site, with unmanned towers feeding information to a central hub.
It would serve airports at Inverness, Sumburgh, Dundee, Wick, John o’Groats, Kirkwall, Stornoway and Benbecula. Such a system already operates in Sweden.
Hial’s airports at Barra, Tiree, Islay and Campbeltown have different levels of air traffic usage and would not be affected by the changes.
Hial board members have agreed to the move in principle and will discuss it with staff and others in due course. There will be no immediate changes to existing operations.
Prospect’s aviation officer in Scotland, David Avery, said: "We understand Hial has a significant challenge in recruiting and retaining controllers but we see nothing in the report to address the cause of the issue, which is more related to pay and conditions.
"We support the need to modernise. However, any centralised monitoring system will be dependent on a reliable, resilient and secure communications infrastructure between the mainland and the islands which simply doesn’t exist.
"Hial are gambling on this and Prospect believes this is gambling with people’s safety".
That was firmly disputed by Hial.
Managing director Inglis Lyon said: "Our overriding priority is, and will always be, to deliver safe and secure air navigation services that will keep our airports open for local communities for the long-term. Safety will never be compromised.
"The union has been actively involved in the seven-month consultation process which led to the Helios recommendations being approved by the board. So, again, they will understand that the decision has not been taken lightly.
"Aviation authorities will also be closely involved in the process. There is absolutely no possibility of anyone ‘gambling with people’s safety’.
"We’ll continue to involve our staff and the union in our discussions on the project and look forward to working with Prospect around that."
Green Party transport spokesman and north MSP John Finnie said: "It’s imperative these highly skilled jobs are retained across the region rather than centralised in Inverness."
"While understandable that Hial wish to modernise its air traffic control operation, it must ensure any changes to the current model prioritise the safe operation of its airports."
No decision has been made about the location of the proposed operational centre. It would be the first of its kind in the UK.