Community Unites to Fight Downgrade of Benbecula Airport

The Uist Economic Task Force is joining Benbecula Community Council in the fight against the downgrade of their life-line airport in Benbecula. In January 2020 HIAL (Highlands & Islands Airports Ltd) announced that they would be removing Air Traffic Control (ATC) from both Benbecula and Wick Airports.

In a meeting with Uist Councillors in January, HIAL Management said the removal of ATC from Benbecula is a necessary step due to changing regulatory requirements, however Prospect Union have confirmed with the CAA that maintaining ATC at Benbecula will still be a viable option in the future. Cllr. Iain MacNeil, Chair of Uist Economic Task force says he “demands that HIAL are open with them about the real reasons for the decision to downgrade Benbecula Airport”.

This decision itself was made without reference to HIAL ATC staff at Benbecula Airport and without consultation with the communities who depend on the airport services. In a meeting in September, the  HIAL’s Functional Manager, who is leading the downgrade of Benbecula Airport, admitted the decision had also been made without having assessed the safety consequences or risks associated with the decision, and that Risk Assessments and Hazard Identification still remain to be carried out.

The removal of Air Traffic Control eliminates a significant level of safety from Benbecula Airport as ATC provides instruction to aircraft to provide a minimum safe distance between them. To mitigate for the loss of ATC Benbecula Airport couldn’t maintain its current airport schedules, and flights would have to be allocated slot times to ensure adequate time separation. As Benbecula relies on daily connections with Stornoway, Inverness and Glasgow, without ATC, the Uist community is likely  to suffer more frequent delays and cancellations in addition to those already caused by adverse weather.

Vanessa Langley, Member of Benbecula Community Council which petitioned the Scottish Government to suspend their policy on changing the Air Traffic Services provision at Benbecula and Wick, comments, “Our fragile community depends on Benbecula Airport for business, connecting with family, holidays and healthcare such as cancer treatment, pregnancy scans and surgical operations. What are routine appointments for those in the cities requiring a couple of hours out of the school or work, can mean a two-night stay in Glasgow or Inverness for a Uist resident. This is our airport as we are the ones who use it so this is not an operational issue for HIAL Management to decide on and we ask HIAL to be open as to why they are downgrading the airport when there is a viable option to retain ATC.”

Uist Economic Task Force calls on the Scottish Government, who wholly owns HIAL, to get directly involved in the downgrade and properly assess the potential damage to the Uist community. Cllr Iain MacNeil continues, “Downgrading Benbecula airport is not the only option open to HIAL and we demand that the other options are put on the table and properly assessed. We believed that the Islands (Scotland) Act 2018 would give our island communities a voice in Holyrood and that the Scottish Ministers would now perform their ‘duty to have regard to island communities’. This has not happened. The eight Members of HIAL’s Board who approved the downgrade decision have never lived in the Scottish islands and yet they can decide the future of our lifeline services without consulting us. We will be submitting a new petition to the Scottish Government calling on HIAL’s Framework document to be amended to require that the HIAL  Board contains some members who represent the island communities HIAL serves. This is the best and indeed appropriate  way for  islanders to be heard and to contribute at the right stage to  key decisions which affect our communities.”