AIR traffic control staff are to escalate industrial action over plans to centralise some air traffic control at Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd.

HIAL has proposed controlling air traffic at five airports from a central hub.

The Prospect union, which has said that the long-term future of lifeline services is at risk through the plans said some members were unwilling to relocate, meaning nearly 50 could lose their jobs.

The union says HIAL will need to recruit a similar number in Inverness at very significant expense to the taxpayer.

The escalation of industrial action will include: work to rosters, an overtime ban and a refusal of extended hours except for search and rescue, emergency and medical flights.

It also involves a refusal to commence training of new controllers.

The action is in addition to a continuous action short of a strike notified on the December 21, which started on January 4 consisting of a refusal to engage with proposals to centralise air traffic control for seven airports which involve shutting down seven traffic towers.

HIAL has been pushing ahead with plans to relocate air traffic work to one "remote site" in Inverness prompting fears that public safety at risk, according to the union.

HeraldScotland:

Under Hial's plan, air traffic control for Inverness, Sumburgh in Shetland, Dundee, Kirkwall in Orkney, and Stornoway in the Western Isles would be controlled centrally.

Unmanned towers would feed information to a hub in Inverness.

It is claimed it will involve the removal of seven existing towers at Inverness, Dundee, Shetland, Orkney, Wick, Benbecula and Stornoway.

Analysis from Prospect, which represents air traffic control staff at HIAL airports, suggested that moving air traffic control to Inverness would remove up to 60 skilled jobs and around £1.5m of direct employment from rural and island economies and would "run contrary" to the recently published Islands Plan produced by the Scottish Government which owns HIAL.

David Avery, Prospect negotiator, said: “Prospect has presented a raft of evidence against remote towers, including an independent report into its viability, and HIAL’s own impact assessment published recently shows the negative impact it will have on communities, but HIAL are pressing on regardless. This is the wrong plan and at a time when aviation is being decimated by the pandemic there are better things to spend taxpayers’ money on.

“HIAL claim that the current system is inflexible and unsustainable, this is simply not the case. Staff come in early and stay late to accommodate aircraft to ensure that their local communities remain connected. Where there have been staffing problems in the past the staff have gone above and beyond to ensure airports remain open.

“It is not too late for HIAL and the Scottish Government to think again, cancel this harmful project and come up with an acceptable way to modernise services.”

Proposals for a single remote tower centre - said to be a UK first -were first mooted three years ago as part of HIAL plans to "future-proof" its operations with an estimated £28 million investment over the next ten to 15 years.

Air traffic controllers would be moved to a central hub, the location of which had not then been decided.

HIAL said in December it would continue its dialogue with the union and has denied it was proposing job cuts.

HIAL managing director Inglis Lyon said: “Further industrial action by Prospect will have significant impact on local communities and individuals who rely on HIAL’s airports. This action is unwarranted and at this time could put existing routes under unsustainable pressure, just as the country is emerging from lockdown.

“We would not be undertaking this hugely complex project unless we believed it was absolutely necessary to do so. We have repeatedly said ATMS is the only option that allows us to move forward in a way that ensures the long-term future of air services for the Highlands and Islands and that remains the case. For its part Prospect has repeatedly failed to provide a credible alternative.

“The aviation industry will take years to recover from the effects of COVID 19 and any disruption to scheduled services as a result of this action will put us further behind at a time when we should be looking forward.

“Notwithstanding that HIAL operates a no redundancy policy, Prospect repeats its inaccurate claim that HIAL will make 50 staff redundant. Our air traffic controllers are highly-valued colleagues and we will work closely with them as we go through a period of significant change and necessary modernisation in the way air traffic management is delivered.”