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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, January 23, 2020

Meeting of the Parliament 23 January 2020

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Air Traffic Control (Highlands and Islands), Farming and Crofting (Support), Portfolio Question Time, Consumer Scotland Bill: Stage 1, Consumer Scotland Bill: Financial Resolution, Decision Time


Contents


Air Traffic Control (Highlands and Islands)

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Linda Fabiani)

The next item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S5M-20382, in the name of Beatrice Wishart, on the proposed centralisation of air traffic control in the Highlands and Islands. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament notes the reported widespread concern in response to plans by Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd (HIAL) to centralise air traffic control (ATC) services in Inverness through the use of remote towers; acknowledges what it sees as the importance of ensuring that ATC services are modernised and remain fit for purpose, but believes that this must be balanced with the safety of passengers, the reliability of lifeline services and the need to sustain high-skilled jobs in island communities; understands that the proposed remote tower option being pursued was identified by HIAL's own advisers as carrying the greatest potential risk and cost; believes that many HIAL employees and stakeholders feel that they have not been properly consulted or that their concerns have been taken on board; considers that HIAL’s ability to implement its remote tower model requires it to be able to convince existing staff to support the changes and that the level of dissatisfaction currently felt among ATC staff is likely to exacerbate any recruitment and retention problems and risks; believes that the reported recent communications failures at HIAL's airports serve to reinforce the concerns that have been expressed about its proposed centralisation model; considers that these proposals will have a detrimental impact on communities in the islands, and notes the calls on the Scottish Government to instruct HIAL to halt the remote tower project and pursue other options for modernisation.

12:50  

Beatrice Wishart (Shetland Islands) (LD)

I thank members for supporting the motion and for being present in the chamber. I also welcome members of staff from Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd, who are in the public gallery.

I lodged a motion for debate on air traffic control centralisation, because the issue is of huge concern to my constituents in Shetland and to communities across the Highlands and Islands that have links to HIAL-run airports. I remind members that HIAL is 100 per cent owned by the Scottish Government.

As part of its “Air Traffic Management Strategy 2030”, HIAL is pushing ahead with the introduction of remote towers at seven of its airports, in effect centralising air traffic control in Inverness. According to HIAL, 86 jobs will be impacted. In our communities, that is the same as it would be if hundreds of jobs were lost in Edinburgh or Glasgow.

Stakeholders such as Shetland Islands Council—of which I was a member at the time—were told that change was necessary because of the difficulty of recruiting and retaining air traffic controllers; because the method of air traffic control that is currently used in the HIAL network is out of date and out of step with the rest of the world; and because HIAL had to future proof its operation to ensure continuity of service.

The people to whom I have spoken are not against change. Everyone wants a safe, resilient service in the Highlands and Islands. The main concerns that those who disagree with HIAL’s proposals have raised are about safety and resilience on the lifeline services that operate out of HIAL airports, along with the loss of highly skilled jobs in our communities.

In relation to the safety and reliability of remote towers, a Swedish air traffic management executive contacted me last week to tell me that the airports that his company serves have not introduced remote towers because the technology is “not mature yet”.

Last February, my predecessor, Tavish Scott, highlighted that, between 2013 and October 2018, there were 79 incidents of full or partial degradation of air traffic control communications. Many of those faults involved Inverness airport. There is no suggestion that passengers were put at risk, but it raises serious questions about the technological viability of the plan.

Related to that point is the often extreme changeability of the weather in the Highlands and Islands. There is no substitute for eyes on the ground, so the remote towers plan does not fill me with confidence.

In recent years, there have been recruitment challenges, although not at Sumburgh airport. There is a shortage of air traffic controllers across the United Kingdom. It is a respected profession that requires a great deal of training, and there is only one trainer in the UK for the existing model of air traffic management on the HIAL network. HIAL’s view is that it is easier to attract controllers to Inverness than to the islands, but the air traffic controllers to whom I have spoken do not want to move to Inverness. They have settled and made their homes on the islands and wish to stay in our island communities.

In any business or organisation, the most valuable asset is the staff. In implementing major change, particularly one that involves transformation on the scale that HIAL proposes, one of the first principles is to involve staff. Companies need to bring staff along with them, rather than force change on them.

A survey that Prospect conducted of its members who work for HIAL tells us that 94 per cent oppose the remote towers plan and that 82 per cent would be more likely to leave HIAL if it was implemented. HIAL is setting itself up for a recruitment crisis instead of solving one.

That brings me to the lack of consultation. Two years ago, HIAL’s consultants described the remote towers option as

“one of the most expensive and certainly the most difficult and risky”.

The remote towers are predicted to cost £123 million over 15 years, a figure that is almost certain to rise. Yet Parliament was told only on Tuesday, in response to a question from Liam McArthur, that HIAL will conduct an islands impact assessment of the project.

That is too little, too late: people in Shetland feel—and rightly so—that the decision has already been made. HIAL will say that it has done a thorough consultation with all stakeholders. The air traffic controllers who have contacted me have been clear that discussions with HIAL have been only one way and only happened after the board had already made its decision to proceed. Centralisation has never been in doubt and a centralised service is never based in the islands. That has been so on many other occasions.

The timing of HIAL’s decision could not be more stark. On 27 December, the first national islands plan was published. The plan is a requirement of the Islands (Scotland) Act 2018. The first strategic objective in the plan is addressing population decline. We are rightly told that

“Ensuring that legislation and policy affords a supporting environment to encourage economically active people either to stay, return or move to an island ... is of the utmost importance”.

HIAL’s decision to rip highly skilled jobs out of our island communities beggars belief.

I agree entirely with the leader of Western Isles Council, Roddie Mackay, who said last Friday:

“This is not an attitude or approach we would expect from a Scottish government owned company.”

I ask the minister to halt this centralising project. This is surely a test of whether the Islands (Scotland) Act 2018 is to live up to the promises and expectations of islanders. More than that, the delivery of our lifeline air service and highly skilled jobs are being put at risk.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

We move to the open debate. I will allow speeches of four minutes.

12:56  

Gail Ross (Caithness, Sutherland and Ross) (SNP)

I thank my colleague Beatrice Wishart for bringing this important and timely debate to the chamber.

Like all my Highlands and Islands colleagues, I was concerned when I heard of HIAL’s plan to centralise air traffic control operations in Inverness. No matter what anyone’s opinion is on the decision, we must agree that it will fundamentally change the way in which air traffic services are provided at our rural Scottish airports. The decision will bring considerable disruption to affected staff and I fear that compulsory redundancies will be necessary—something that the Scottish Government and I are firmly against.

I have been in contact with several stakeholders over the last week, including HIAL, Prospect and Loganair. Although Loganair has broadly welcomed the changes, Prospect has nearly unanimously opposed the decision. What is clear from my correspondence with both HIAL and Prospect is that both parties are committed to the modernisation of our airports and their systems. We all acknowledge that change is necessary.

However, Prospect feels that it was not consulted thoroughly—or at all—before the decision was made. David Avery of Prospect has gone on record to say:

“It is inconceivable that such far-reaching changes can be brought in with the paltry level of consultation and transparency we have seen.”

My main concern lies with the current workforce across the affected airports, although I would also like to hear from the cabinet secretary about the safety issues that Beatrice Wishart mentioned.

We have been told that those who want to commute to Inverness will be free to do so, but it is impossible to imagine the staff located on our islands committing to making that journey. Those who live outside the commuting zone now face having relocation forced upon them. From my correspondence with HIAL, there seems to be a lack of clarity on how subsidised travel for commuters will be provided and HIAL has also acknowledged that there are no provisions in place for staff accommodation facilities in Inverness.

The centralisation process has raised valid concerns about whether this decision is in direct contravention of the Islands (Scotland) Act 2018, which came into force last summer. HIAL has acknowledged that it will review its approach depending on the outcome of an island impact assessment, which it has committed to undertake. I welcome that, although I feel—as do colleagues on the islands—that the assessment should have been conducted prior to publishing the proposed plans.

I acknowledge that the plans include investment in areas outside Inverness. New radar surveillance equipment will be introduced at my local airport in Wick and those working with the new equipment must do so on site, so there is a degree of flexibility in place for those who do not want to relocate to Inverness. Similar changes will also take place at Benbecula.

Although I truly understand the apprehension of Prospect and its members, I know that HIAL and the Scottish Government have a track record of working hard to keep connectivity and infrastructure in place in my constituency. I remind the chamber of both parties’ determination to sustain the air services to and from Wick John o’ Groats over the winter period. On top of that, a lot of good work has been done by HIAL, Caithness Chamber of Commerce and others locally regarding the public service obligation business case.

I can and do give credit to HIAL for its efforts to preserve connectivity to the far north, but I urge it to continue its hard work, to engage with key stakeholders and to recognise when plans need to be amended as the current project progresses. I have listened to what the various stakeholders have had to say on the issue, and I urge HIAL to listen and to provide reassurance to the affected workers and relevant unions, as well as scrutinising its decision via a comprehensive island impact assessment.

13:00  

Jamie Halcro Johnston (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

I thank Beatrice Wishart for bringing this important debate to the chamber and for her contribution, and I thank Gail Ross for her thoughtful speech. It is important that the voices of service users are very much at the forefront of the process.

HIAL’s plans to centralise air traffic control services are just the latest in a long line of issues on which the company—which is, of course, owned by the Scottish Government—has found itself on the wrong side of local public opinion. It is another situation in which the feeling among many people in the remote and island communities that HIAL serves is that the decision has been taken in the interests of the company and saving money.

It will come as no surprise that, since HIAL announced its proposals, constituents across my region have expressed concern. I am sure that many of the other members who are taking part in the debate will have had the same experience. As Beatrice Wishart mentioned, people recognise that modernisation and sustainability are necessary in serving a region that, as those of us who live there know, can be a challenging place in which to operate, but they are worried that those things are coming at the expense of their communities.

It is less than a year since the historic Islands (Scotland) Act 2018 was passed by this Parliament, with widespread support from all parties. It enshrines the principle that our islands have clear, distinct issues that should be considered in policy making. I welcome the news that, at the very least, an island impact assessment will be carried out on HIAL’s proposed changes, but I am concerned, as others are, that HIAL’s proposals are at odds with the objectives of the islands act.

The Scottish Government’s “National Islands Plan” highlights the importance of local jobs. It states:

“it is clear that all islands could benefit from more opportunities for the people who live there. Sometimes, a small increase in jobs or income generating opportunities can have a huge impact on an island community”.

In this instance, I agree with the Scottish Government, yet HIAL’s proposals will uproot direct employment from those very same island communities, which will have an impact on families, businesses and the local economies.

Bill Bowman (North East Scotland) (Con)

Does the member agree that, although the name of the group is Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd, it includes Dundee airport and that people there could also be affected?

Jamie Halcro Johnston

I do. That is an important point to make, and I thank Bill Bowman for making it.

The islands plan also states:

“Transport is a key sector where island communities want to have an even greater voice so that they can genuinely inform decisions that will affect them day in day out.”

Is the cabinet secretary confident that that objective is being met in this case? Time and again, constituents have criticised HIAL’s inability to consult adequately, whether with local communities or its own staff. Is the cabinet secretary confident that those local communities that will be directly impacted by the plans have been adequately consulted and have had their voices heard?

What about the regional air traffic controllers? They are highly skilled, and the Helios report, which was commissioned by HIAL, gives the clearest possible indication that ATC staff have deep concerns about job security and do not consider relocation to be a viable alternative. The Helios report noted the potential dangers of the connection between the remote towers and airport facilities not being 100 per cent. It also outlined the potentially prohibitive costs that would be incurred in making sure that those electronic links are completely secure.

I am from Orkney, and I rely on these vital lifeline air links to get to Parliament and home again, to get out to meet my constituents and to represent them in this Parliament. I have experienced the worst of the weather conditions that those links have to operate in. One winter, I sat in Aberdeen airport for almost 10 hours and had to spend another hour or so sitting on the plane on the tarmac, waiting for a weather window that would allow us to leave Aberdeen and land in Kirkwall safely.

I simply cannot believe that the proposed centralised system would allow the operation of such flights safely in similar circumstances and conditions. Unless the cabinet secretary can guarantee today that people travelling to and from our islands communities will see absolutely no detrimental impact on flights, whether they are making personal, business or medical appointment journeys, I urge him to ask HIAL to think again.

This is an opportunity for ministers to take a different course and to refresh and reset relationships between HIAL, its employees and the communities that it serves; fully engage with those communities; and show that HIAL and the Scottish Government are genuinely listening to our concerns, that our voices will be heard, and that our concerns will not be ridden roughshod over again.

13:05  

Rhoda Grant (Highlands and Islands) (Lab)

I, too, congratulate Beatrice Wishart on bringing this important debate to the chamber.

I have been speaking to air traffic controllers about this proposal for some years, and their fears, rather than being allayed, have increased. The overwhelming majority of air traffic controllers who are currently employed by HIAL are against the centralisation plan. New staff who are being recruited have a clause in their contract that makes provision for relocation from local airports to Inverness in the future, which shows that the decision was made a long time ago, without appropriate consultation with existing staff.

Proposals for alternative arrangements to remote towers have been drawn up and submitted by existing senior staff, but they seem not to have been considered at all. They have staff backing but there has been no indication that they have ever seen the light of day in HIAL.

For remote towers to work, they need very reliable digital connectivity. Normally, four separate connections are required to provide security. Remote tower operations in Scandinavian countries have hardwired cabling with back-up, and they generally serve single-aircraft operations in airports that have around one or two flights per week. The United Kingdom is considering remote working for the busier London City airport, but that is not yet working independently, so is not a live comparator. It has multiple hardwired connectivity back-ups and several nearby large airports in controlled airspace that would help out with any problems.

There has been a suggestion that HIAL would require a lower level of resilience, but that would surely put lives and services at risk. The reality is that some of the airports do not have any adequate digital link, far less four independent ones. With the withdrawal of Connected Communities in the Western Isles, the situation is even worse. Everyone who lives on the islands and in remote parts of Scotland knows the problems of poor internet, electricity and communication infrastructures, and they see the impact that weather has on them.

This week, we heard that an islands impact assessment will be carried out, although that will be only a paper exercise, as the scheme has already been tendered and contracted. This is the first test of the islands impact assessment, so it must be meaningful. We have also heard that Benbecula and Wick airports are being downgraded. There has been no islands impact assessment for Benbecula and there has been no consultation with staff on the proposals, which have come as a bolt out of the blue. The airports that are being downgraded are the ones that will have to deal with spaceports—it makes absolutely no sense.

Gail Ross

I say, for the record, that there has been consultation with staff at Wick airport.

Rhoda Grant

My understanding is that there was no consultation with staff on Benbecula, but I am willing to be corrected.

Surely, all staff should be consulted fully before such decisions are made, and, surely, the communities should be consulted. Given that HIAL is in favour of spaceports in these areas, it needs to be sure that they can operate safely.

The truth is that the centralisation will have a huge impact on the economies of both the islands and Caithness, as Gail Ross well knows. Although the jobs are more poorly paid than their counterparts at other airports, they are more highly paid than the Scottish average, and they are permanent, year-round jobs. The families of people who do the jobs are integral to the community: they are professional staff who work in our public services and in private industry. They will not be easily replaced if they are forced to move.

Previous recruitment by HIAL was exemplary. HIAL recruited and trained local people who were vested in their communities and who wanted to live there. Now, they are being forced to move. Many have contacted me as the scheme has emerged. They are families with mortgages, who have no choice but to move because there is no alternative employment that could pay their mortgages. Their circumstances give them no choice at all. Reading their emails is heart-breaking: the personal cost is huge. The cost to our island and remote communities is also unacceptable, and I urge the Government to stop this wrong-headed scheme.

The proposal is to develop a multimillion-pound project to put remote towers into only five airports, but, surely, it would be better and more sensible to put measures in place that would control airspace and provide the resilience that is required. The Government could do that at a fraction of the cost. The scheme is a vanity project and, like others before it, it will end in tears. I beseech the Government to put an end to it and to look at more sensible options for the future.

13:11  

John Finnie (Highlands and Islands) (Green)

I, too, congratulate my colleague Beatrice Wishart on bringing forward this important debate.

I do not know anyone who does not want the highest standards of safety to apply. I have received a briefing from Prospect—a union that has been a tremendous supporter not only of its own members, but of Highlands and Islands representatives—which says:

“By centralising services, HIAL are introducing multiple single points of failure to an already complex system. The cameras, the data connections and centre itself all present potential points of failure.”

It is important that we understand how decisions are reached. I am also very interested in the management structure and the role that ministers play. I absolutely understand that many people in the chamber would be critical of the cabinet secretary if he were to intervene in operational matters—I get that. However, there have been some significant matters involving HIAL over the years—including issues connected with rendition flights and the related inquiry, and its significant capital expenditure. The cabinet secretary is to be commended for one intervention that he made in relation to HIAL, and that is the one that he made in respect of a pay dispute. That was very important, and I ask that he intervenes again.

Many members have spoken about consultation or, indeed, the distinct lack of consultation about this matter. People who are familiar with the car parking charges fiasco will know of the heavy-handed way in which HIAL went about handling it. It is important that every employer has regard to its workforce.

There is an additional responsibility placed on organisations such as HIAL. It has a unique social responsibility, given its oversight of lifeline services. What we have heard so far is disappointing.

I was really surprised to hear the cabinet secretary tell us that HIAL is going to do its islands impact assessment. In one respect that is very good. However, a key objective of the national islands plan is to display

“leadership in the public sector”

by

“demonstrating that jobs and careers can be successful on islands.”

HIAL would most certainly fail on that. Rhoda Grant mentioned the clause in new contracts. Clearly, the process is flawed, and that is because of the way that it has been approached.

We should celebrate the unique geography of the Highlands and Islands, and that means that comparing productivity or the number of flights that are overseen by an operator at Gatwick or Edinburgh and in Benbecula makes no sense whatsoever. Those are not factors that should be considered.

HIAL has something that it is right to be proud about in relation to its employment. Rhoda Grant referred to HIAL as an “exemplar”, because it trained local people. That is a very clear example of its social responsibility in terms of ensuring that quality jobs are provided in communities where the profile and range of jobs means that there are not many highly paid ones.

I will not go into the technical aspects, not least because I am not a very technical person. However, I know that one aspect that has been referred to is the question of local knowledge. That is unique.

We hear examples of the particular challenges of delivering air services in the conditions that often prevail in the Highlands and Islands.

Recruitment is an issue, but that is not unique to HIAL, Scotland, the United Kingdom or Europe. It is a worldwide issue, which we are aware of, but some of the factors and challenges in retaining staff will be compounded here. As has been said, air traffic controllers are a highly marketable commodity—they are in demand worldwide. What we absolutely must do is ensure that such jobs are retained in the islands communities.

If the outcome of any process is the removal of valuable jobs, the process is wrong. I ask the cabinet secretary to intervene to ensure that the organisation that has oversight of our lifeline air services acts with social responsibility and not like a multinational corporation.

13:15  

Liam McArthur (Orkney Islands) (LD)

Like other members, I thank my friend and colleague, Beatrice Wishart, for securing this important debate. I thank her, too, for the clarity with which she set out the serious implications of the proposed centralisation for the Shetland community that she represents, as well as the very grave concerns that air traffic control staff, some of whom are in the public gallery, have been spelling out for months about HIAL’s plans. It is a picture that I recognise all too well from an Orkney perspective. From the excellent speeches of colleagues who represent other communities in the Highlands and Islands, I can see that it is the same for them.

Like Gail Ross, I want to debunk a myth that has grown up around the issue. Those of us voicing concerns about the centralisation of ATC services have been equally passionate in arguing for the modernisation of those services and the infrastructure on which they rely. It is not an either-or situation, as some have sought to portray it. Controlled air space is non-negotiable. Full radar surveillance is a must.

The fact is that centralisation—a remote tower in Inverness that covers the entire region—is not the only show in town. HIAL’s consultants recognised that. Indeed, Helios went even further, concluding that the remote tower model was the most costly and risky of the options that are available to HIAL, yet HIAL has been determined to press ahead with that plan from the get-go.

All the talk of consultation counts for little when the outcome is predetermined, and that point is not lost on staff, who remain deeply unhappy at the way in which they have been treated throughout the process. They are so unhappy that 82 per cent say that they are prepared to leave the organisation if it continues down that route. That figure alone should give HIAL pause for thought. It certainly calls into question HIAL’s ability to deliver such a radical change, but it also raises doubts about its ability to support existing services.

At topical question time on Tuesday, the Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Infrastructure and Connectivity quoted Loganair’s managing director, Jonathan Hinkles, but he failed to acknowledge what Mr Hinkles went on to say, so I will remind members. Mr Hinkles said:

“people clearly have a choice between redundancy, relocation or taking their skills elsewhere in a competitive labour market, this will be an undoubted challenge to manage.”

From my discussions with local air traffic control officers in Orkney earlier this week, and from the meeting that MSPs held immediately prior to the debate, I see no sign that HIAL is close to meeting that challenge. The consequences for the delivery of our lifeline air services if staff start voting with their feet is truly alarming.

There is also little confidence in HIAL’s costs for the project. HIAL is quick to point to other parts of the world where such a measure is being delivered or considered, but all those examples have significantly better infrastructure in place than the Highlands and Islands, and none present the same difficulties. Unfortunately, by the time that reality catches up with the assertions that have been made by HIAL and, latterly, ministers, millions of pounds will have been wasted and staff will have left.

This Government’s record on centralisation or major information technology projects is not unblemished—just ask our police or farmers—yet HIAL now proposes an unhappy amalgam of the two.

It is funny how such processes never lead to services being devolved outwards; they are always concentrated in the centre. If the infrastructure and system are so resilient, why not locate the tower in Kirkwall or Sumburgh? In renewables and oil and gas, for example, those communities have shown that they can be centres of excellence and attract and retain workers. However, that was never on the cards in this case. That is what happens with centralisation and when the deck is stacked from the start.

I thank Beatrice Wishart again for enabling Parliament to have the debate, and I again urge the cabinet secretary to call a halt to the potentially damaging proposals.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I call Michael Matheson, the Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Infrastructure and Connectivity, to respond to the debate—for around seven minutes, please, cabinet secretary.

13:19  

The Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Infrastructure and Connectivity (Michael Matheson)

As other members have done, I congratulate Beatrice Wishart on securing time for the debate.

I have listened with interest to the speeches of colleagues across the chamber on the important issue of the future shape of air traffic control services in Highlands and Islands airports in the years ahead.

Members will recognise, of course, that provision of air traffic control services is changing across the world. There is an unprecedented demand for controllers and a move from traditional practices to more modern working, including digital working. Those new working practices, views on safety and level of service, and new regulatory frameworks are creating a different ATC environment that all airports must adapt to if they are to continue to operate in the future.

I will deal first with the regulatory environment in which HIAL operates and will operate in the years ahead, because it provides important context. That environment is changing, so the way in which ATC services perform will have to evolve to reflect that. ATC modernisation is driven by changes that have been made by the European Aviation Safety Agency and the Civil Aviation Authority, concerning new regulations governing the use of controlled airspace. Since the work started in 2017, there has been broad agreement—as I believe there is agreement in the chamber today—that doing nothing is not an option, because it would lead to the eventual cessation of air services in the Highlands and Islands. The current practice of HIAL will not meet future operational or regulatory requirements, the current infrastructure is not suited to modern working and the current arrangements have weaknesses that ensure that there are challenges in terms of the reliability and sustainability of services, going forward.

Although the current arrangements are safe, there are—

John Finnie

Will the cabinet secretary take an intervention?

Michael Matheson

I will finish my point and will give way to John Finnie after that.

As I said, although the current arrangements are safe, there is an opportunity to make them safer and, at the same time, to achieve greater efficiency through reducing emissions from aircraft operation.

John Finnie

Does the cabinet secretary acknowledge what was said in the quotation that I read earlier from Prospect? No one has issues about the safety aspect, but the model that is proposed—I presume that the cabinet secretary will acknowledge that it is not the only model that is available—does not come without risks.

Michael Matheson

All the models come with risks. I will address that later in my speech. John Finnie has raised an important point.

I believe that we all recognise that safe and sustainable air services are essential to the economy and social wellbeing of our Highlands and Islands, and that they are a major part of supporting communities there. HIAL must therefore ensure that, at each of its airports, the company operates in compliance with all the regulatory requirements. That is for the benefit of passengers and the wider community that HIAL serves.

Recognising the vital role of the airports and the fact that the status quo is not an option, HIAL commissioned Helios to carry out a full and detailed analysis of all the options that were available to the airports collectively and in relation to each airport in the group. A number of members have referred to the Helios report.

Dr Alasdair Allan (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP)

Will the cabinet secretary take an intervention?

Michael Matheson

I am happy to give way, Presiding Officer, but there is a lot that I need to get through, so I ask you to bear with me, timewise, so that I can do so.

Dr Allan

The cabinet secretary might be about to address this matter. What serious consideration did HIAL give to looking at sites other than Inverness for its proposed new model?

Michael Matheson

I will come to that point, too, later in my speech.

It is worth keeping it in mind that Helios is a specialist independent consultancy that works with airports around the world on such issues. Its work was detailed and dispassionate and recognised the unique environment in which HIAL operates. It benefited from engagement and contributions from HIAL air traffic control staff and other interests, and consisted of a full review of all air traffic management operations and options to address regulatory requirements. The report identified the challenges and the potential weaknesses to which Liam McArthur and others have referred.

The remote towers and centralised surveillance option, in conjunction with controlled air space, was recommended by Helios as the most appropriate for HIAL and the best suited to HIAL’s multi-airport structure and particular needs.

Since that report was completed, further detailed examination of the options for each airport has identified that an aerodrome flight information service might be more proportionate for Benbecula and Wick airports, as was referenced by Gail Ross and Rhoda Grant. That conclusion reflects the volume and nature of flights at those airports and use of the airspace around them. The proposals mean that the airports would operate in a similar way to Barra, Tiree, Campbeltown and Islay airports.

Members will be aware that implementation of the change is currently subject to discussion with staff and a range of other parties that have interests in the matter—in particular, the main operator, Loganair. Implementation also requires licensing and approval from the Civil Aviation Authority, as the airports regulator.

Since the decision was taken in 2018 to implement the programme of work, significant progress has been made in a number of areas. I know that some people will say that there should have been greater engagement by HIAL at an earlier stage, but I also acknowledge that, over the past two years, engagement has taken place with elected members, interested parties, airline operators and the Civil Aviation Authority.

I know that Loganair, which is the biggest operator in the Highlands and Islands, has written to members outlining its views. As the airline that has more experience than any other in operating in the Highlands and Islands, its views on safety and resilience carry significant weight.

Liam McArthur

I thank the cabinet secretary for sparing time to discuss the matter in more detail. Following topical questions on Tuesday, he will recognise the concerns that I have about the technicalities. Frankly, the consultation with staff over the last two years has seen HIAL in sales and transmit mode—not in listening mode. Part of the problem is that, two years down the line, there is not a lot of confidence among staff that HIAL is prepared to listen to the serious concerns that they continue to raise. It has got to the point where staff are preparing to leave HIAL, which puts in jeopardy not just the organisation, but delivery of lifeline services to Orkney and around the Highlands and Islands air network.

Michael Matheson

The board of HIAL has accepted the recommendation in the Helios report, which looked at the matter in great detail. It is important that in progressing the model, HIAL engages with staff and interested stakeholders to address their concerns.

I know that my colleague, Paul Wheelhouse, met Beatrice Wishart and Rhoda Grant before Christmas to cover some of the issues. He suggested that they provide a list of areas of concern and issues. This week, we received a response from Rhoda Grant. We have not yet received details from Beatrice Wishart. However, the offer remains open in order that we can make sure that the issues are picked up and addressed. I am clear about the need for HIAL to continue to engage with staff throughout the programme of work to take the project forward.

I turn to safety. A number of members have made reference to it and have suggested or implied that digital towers are less safe than the current arrangements. We need to be very clear: HIAL will introduce only arrangements that enhance safety. The new technology will improve visibility for controllers and ensure that they can see an aircraft at all times, which is not always the case at present.

Although the current arrangements are safe, we should always strive to improve safety even further, which is an important part of the new arrangements. I am sure that all members have confidence in the Civil Aviation Authority, given that it is required to license and approve any new scheme that HIAL introduces. The Civil Aviation Authority is the safety expert on such matters. It is also driving the regulatory changes that mean that we need to change the existing operational structures for air traffic control. The authority is best placed to make that assessment.

I turn to a point that members have made about the Islands (Scotland) Act 2018. As I highlighted in my response to Liam McArthur’s question on Tuesday, an islands impact assessment will be undertaken by HIAL. One was not done in 2018 because the decision predated the act. The work has been on-going for some two years now, and the assessment will be undertaken as part of our commitment within the islands act.

John Finnie rose—

I have given way twice and I really must make progress, I say with all due respect to Mr Finnie.

In relation to controllers and ATC support staff, it remains important for HIAL to undertake proper and fully detailed engagement with staff to try to address individual circumstances and concerns. I fully recognise that it is a major transformational change that will, in some cases, require staff having to be trained in new procedures and relocating to a new workplace or, potentially, commuting to Inverness for parts of the week. I recognise the challenges and concerns that that raises for staff, which is why it is important that HIAL engage directly and individually with staff who are affected by the changes that will be introduced.

Members including Alasdair Allan and Liam McArthur have asked why Inverness was chosen for the location of the digital tower. One of the reasons was a staff survey that identified Inverness as the preferred location for a central surveillance tower, if one was to be established. HIAL published the details of that survey, and it has given a commitment to continuing to be open about key operational decisions, as it makes progress.

I recognise that not all air traffic controllers are supportive of the change, which is understandable. However, the change presents an opportunity to move in a direction that is in line with the rest of the industry on provision of air traffic control services, to ensure that HIAL can meet the regulatory change that it will face in the years ahead to deliver a more resilient service than exists at present. The change will also future proof the service with the latest technology, which will benefit service users in the years ahead.

Ultimately, however, the program will provide an opportunity to provide a much more resilient and safer service than we have now. Of course, full implementation by HIAL will be done in a fashion that I believe will involve careful and detailed assessment. Rigorous testing will be implemented throughout the process in order to meet the Civil Aviation Authority’s standards. I encourage members from across the chamber to continue to raise concerns and matters that they believe need to be addressed as the program moves forward. That will allow HIAL and other stakeholders to ensure that those matters are appropriately addressed.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I think that we might have set a record for the longest response at a members’ business debate. That concludes the debate. The meeting is adjourned until 2pm.

13:34 Meeting suspended.  14:00 On resuming—