HIAL in headlines for all wrong reasons

This article first appeared in The Shetland Times.

Highlands and Islands Airports Limited (HIAL), the Scottish Government owned company charged with running our vital island airports has been in the headlines for all the wrong reasons recently.

Its plan to centralise air traffic control operations, for instance, is ill thought out and will likely mean the loss of skilled jobs in our island communities.

I accept that HIAL wants to modernise its operation, but any proposals to do this must not compromise safety and should not remove skilled jobs from island communities. I’ve met with the air traffic controllers trade union, Prospect, who have told me that the proposals, in their current form, are unworkable.

All this fuels the serious concerns about HIAL’s poor consultation with its workforce, local communities, and elected representatives and as such people are understandably anxious.

It is important when major changes like this are proposed, that engagement is prioritised. In this instance, it looks as though HIAL had made up its mind, with any consultation an afterthought.

Speaking of poor communication, HIAL’s proposal to charge for car parking at Sumburgh airport was debated in the Scottish Parliament last week.

I regret being unable to attend the debate, as I was Chairing the Parliament’s Police Committee at the same time, however I was happy to sign the debate motion and share the concerns of my Parliamentary colleagues.

It may seem peculiar to some that a Green MSP wouldn’t support a move which on the face of it would encourage people to ditch the car. But, as with other island airports affected by car-parking charges, public transport is generally poor meaning that in many cases there is no other option but to drive to the airport.

HIAL and the local authorities need to get their heads together and develop a proper public transport strategy that gives folk other options when travelling to and from airports. In the meantime, this ill-considered proposal should be taken off the table.

As a MSP for the Highlands and Islands I have the privilege of representing a number of remote, island and rural communities who rely on HIAL to facilitate their lifeline air travel throughout and beyond the area.

On its website HIAL state’s that its, “…airports are vital to the social and economic welfare of the areas they serve.” This is undoubtedly true, but I’d seriously question whether the current leadership at the organisation is adequately delivering for these areas.

HIAL must ensure that the communities it serves are at the heart of its decision making. That means proper consultation, before decisions are made. If HIAL can’t even get that right, then The Scottish Ministers need to look seriously at putting in place a new leadership team who can.