Plans for centralised Inverness air traffic control system condemned as 'disaster' for regional airports
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North airports operator Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd (HIAL) has been accused of squandering more than £6.6 million and overlooking the needs of the Far North as a result of its "obsession" with the centralisation of services in Inverness.
Highland Liberal Democrats, Jamie Stone and Molly Nolan, are calling on the SNP government to step in and halt the proposed centralisation of air traffic control service in Inverness as HIAL executives prepare to give evidence to Holyrood's public petitions committee about the plans this week.
HIAL's remote air traffic management system (ATMS) proposal has drawn criticism from opponents, who fear it will draw over 50 well paid jobs away from economically vulnerable areas such as the Islands and North Highlands, and downgrade the service at smaller airports such as Wick.
According to a Freedom of Information Request submitted by a Shetland online newspaper, HIAL has already spent £6,598,049 on the proposals.
This includes £2,626,036 to purchase of New Century House near the Kessock Bridge as the new base for HIAL's new remote air traffic control centre and £341,918 on consultancy fees.
Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross MP Mr Stone said: "HIAL, by the very definition of their name, have a responsibility for all the Highlands and Islands – not just Inverness. The Scottish Government and the HIAL top brass know that the success of Wick Airport is crucial to the economic future of the Far North.
"Without a vibrant airport there, attempts to create new employment as Dounreay decommissions will be seriously hindered.
"For this reason people expect to see HIAL's capital expenditure each year reflect an investment in the outlying airports, rather than simply Inverness.
“Ahead of a forthcoming Holyrood election, I would expect all parliamentary candidates for Caithness, Sutherland and Ross to pledge themselves to lobbying against this centralisation should they be fortunate enough to be elected."
One of those candidates is his Liberal Democrat colleague Molly Nolan, who added: "Highlanders, myself included, are sick of seeing everything centralised in Inverness.
"The fact HIAL were only forced to share their expenditure thanks to a Shetland journalist's FOI is shocking. As a public institution, which is supposed to serve us all in the Far North, they should be transparent and accountable.
"Instead of consulting local communities to find a way to retain skilled jobs, they march on with a top down and extremely expensive centralisation plan which everybody knows will be a disaster for our regional airports.
"If the SNP really care about the success of Wick Airport, they need to exercise their power over HIAL and force them to review this obsession with centralisation."
A HIAL spokesperson responded: “We have undertaken the ATMS project to ensure the long-term sustainability of all our airports, while at the same time securing air services to the Highlands and Islands for generations to come. The ATMS programme is on budget and on schedule.
“HIAL has already invested millions of pounds to improve Wick John O’Groats airports and is committed to its future success.
"We will continue to work closely with the Highland Council, aviation partners and the local community to help introduce air services that best meet local needs”
HIAL's proposals will also be examined by BBC Alba current affairs programme Eòrpa this week.
Eòrpa is on BBC Alba this Thursday, February 18, at 8.30pm and is available on the BBC iPlayer for 30 days afterwards.