Councillors have urged the Scottish Government to show it is “listening to the islands” after a report found plans for remote airport control towers will have a negative impact on some communities.
Western Isles Council said the latest report showed “in black and white” that the plans will cost jobs and damage island economies.
Highlands and Islands Airports Limited (HIAL) is planning to introduce remote integrated air traffic control services for five airports: Inverness, Dundee, Stornoway, Kirkwall and Sumburgh.
This will be delivered via a Combined Surveillance Centre located in Inverness.
In addition, Benbecula and Wick John O’Groats airports will change the way air traffic management is delivered by extending their current Aerodrome Flight Information Service (AFIS) operations.
An independent report found that the plans will have a “very significant negative impact” on some island communities.
Uisdean Robertson, transportation chairman at Western Isles Council, said: “It is time for the Scottish Government to show that they truly believe in and respect the requirements of the Islands Act. Impact assessments are not carried out simply for the sake of doing so.
“They have implications for public bodies, in this case the Government-owned HIAL, and they must now demonstrate by their actions that they are listening to the islands.”
He added: “Now that staff members have had time to digest the findings of the impact assessment, it’s fair to say that the general atmosphere amongst them is one of despondency.
“The report shows in black and white that this project will not only rob us of jobs but will cause damage to our island economies to an extent that is unthinkable from a company owned by Scottish Government ministers.”
An independent impact assessment of HIAL’s Air Traffic Management Strategy (ATMS) found that there would be a “very significant negative impact” on employment in Lewis, Orkney and Shetland and a significant negative impact on the population there due to population loss.
On Lewis, it is estimated that 14.3 full-time equivalent (FTE) jobs and £579,000 in gross salaries will be lost under ATMS while in Shetland it is estimated at 16.9 FTE jobs and £670,000 in gross salaries.
For Orkney, the estimated impact is the loss of 16.2 FTE jobs and £653,000 in gross salaries.
HIAL, which is a public corporation, has said that it must modernise and that ATMS is the only option that provides the necessary levels of resilience required to ensure “long-term, sustainable air traffic service provision for the communities we serve”.
Mr Robertson said that air traffic control in the Western Isles has continued to operate without a hitch during the pandemic.
He said: “HIAL already have the foundation on which to build and future-proof resilient air traffic services right here in the Western Isles.
“However, rather than take the much simpler and less costly option of investing in the Western Isles, and living up to their own mission statement, HIAL has instead now shown that there is nothing that will stop them from squandering taxpayers’ money as they needlessly pursue a flawed strategy.”
A Transport Scotland spokesman said: “We recognise the need to modernise air traffic control to ensure more sustainable and reliable air services in the Highlands and Islands.
“No alternative has been proposed which addresses the issues that the project aims to resolve.
“We urge HIAL’s staff to continue to play a constructive role as implementation of the project progresses.”
A HIAL spokesman said: “HIAL commissioned the independent report to help identify socio-economic impacts for our island and mainland communities – and to allow us to mitigate these impacts wherever possible.
“The report clearly notes why a local surveillance alternative was not viable and was discounted.
“Since Inverness became the preferred location for the Combined Surveillance Centre, HIAL made it clear that ATMS would require some of our colleagues to relocate and we will do everything in our power to help them through this process, whatever they decide.
“Notwithstanding the heartfelt positions of those opposed to ATMS, to date, there have been no alternative viable proposals that provide solutions to address all of the challenges HIAL currently faces.”