Since jet travel married low-cost European holidays to aviation in the 1960s, the industry has experienced cycles of high growth and rapid slow down which made long-term planning unpredictable. The 1970s saw fuel prices treble in weeks. The 1990s brought terrorism and hugely enhanced airport security, inconvenience and cost. 9/11 was a seismic shock that decimated the highly profitable trans Atlantic market.

On and on it has gone but despite this unpredictability, safety standards have continually risen and aviation has become far and away the safest form of transport. That ability to problem solve and adapt under pressure will be needed in the next decades as aviation faces the challenges of an uncertain future.

Scotland has been a natural home for aviation since the early pioneers of the 1930s saw the possibility of linking remote parts of the mainland and the islands with our centres of population. Christina and John Sword were in the bus business until they set up Midland and Scottish Air Ferries to run Scotland’s first scheduled airline in 1933.

Glasgow, as the second city of the Empire, became a natural focus for carrying both passengers and freight. The Second World War built Prestwick as a trans Atlantic hub, Edinburgh, looked south and east to link with other capitals. Aberdeen became the world’s busiest helicopter airport in the 1970s.

Privatisation of our main airports saw enhancement of services to passengers. They are offered many opportunities to spend on food, drink and luxury goods. Those shops and services pay the airport, which in turn invests in growing and improving the airport to attract more airlines and therefore more passengers. A virtuous business circle looked at the climate change discussion and started to plan their part. The immediate impact of the Covid pandemic dramatically removed those passengers and exposed airport businesses to a severe economic shock.

Aircraft production and maintenance has long been a home for engineering graduates from Scottish universities, and skilled apprenticeships abound. A cluster of at least 21 aviation companies surround Prestwick Airport, employing thousands of people in well rewarded and stable jobs. Companies like Spirit AeroSystems manufacture parts for Boeing and Airbus and export across the world. During the pandemic they still pushed ahead with a £28 million investment at their Prestwick facility. Described as “bringing together world-class expertise and facilities” it is aimed at exploring new, more efficient approaches to the design and manufacture of aerostructures such as wings, using lightweight composite material technology to reduce flight emissions and lower costs.

The boundary between air and space is already being challenged by relatively new companies making Scotland a very significant producer of mini satellites which are revolutionising world communications. That boundary will be further blurred when the Prestwick Spaceport opens and conventional aircraft will become the launch platform for multiple satellite deliveries each year.

Air Traffic Control (ATC) is a quiet but hugely important part of Scotland’s aviation industry. South Ayrshire houses one of only two very large ATC centres in the UK. Controllers at the NATS Prestwick Centre service 2.84 million square kilometres of airspace and 42 per cent of aircraft across the UK. They control the largest piece of airspace of any ATC centre in Europe. Their operation is one of the most modern and innovative.


At the other end of the scale Highlands and Islands Airports (HIA) owns some of the smallest but vital airports in the UK. It may be small but it is now also very forward thinking. HIA has embarked on a major upgrade of Air Traffic Control services at its main airports. At Inverness this will entail Air Traffic Controllers working at a remote digital ATC tower in a building away from the airport.

Surveillance of the aircraft and airspace around the airport will be enhanced by high-quality digitised camera signals sent to controllers working in this new building. This electronic replacement of the old tower is using cutting- edge technology which is also deployed in some of the most advanced aviation operations around the world.

As the aviation world looks to recover from the hefty hit of Covid it is also committed to long-term carbon reduction. Two years of very low aircraft operations have given big players time to bring forward long-term plans. Scotland has a very broad involvement in all types of aviation operations.

The environmental crisis was highlighted at COP26 in Glasgow just six months ago. In Scotland I have not found the Green political input to be either constructive or well informed. It may be simplistic to say their approach is constantly “aviation bad” but that is an easy slogan that is often used. I rather support one seasoned professional who said to me this week “aviation is not the enemy, it is carbon”.

Several main areas are cited as aviation’s way ahead. Third generation biofuel is a mix of adapted plant-based material added to current fossil fuel using existing engines. It can be scaled up to become a realistic part of powering aircraft. Other solutions will see electric engines used as a supplement or replacement for existing engines. Hydrogen-powered aircraft would be a complete zero carbon replacement fuel. Until recently all of these seemed small scale and far away from impacting the carbon production problem.

HeraldScotland: COP26 in GlasgowCOP26 in Glasgow

The last weeks have seen major companies like BAE Systems sign agreements with Slovenia’s Pipistrel Aircraft Company. The purpose is to take small but successful innovations in light weight electric aircraft products and scale them to the larger defence and commercial markets. Airbus has also just announced a memorandum of understanding to partner the Australian company Fortescue Future Industries. Together they aim to produce hydrogen-powered commercial aircraft by 2035. That would be an emissions game changer. The shocks of the Ukraine war to the fossil fuel industry will mean these type of investments are likely to be increased and timescales considerably shortened.

Last year, the Sustainable Test Environment Project, led by Highlands and Islands Airports, demonstrated a six-seat passenger aircraft with one electric and one conventional engine. The test ran flawlessly and used at least 25% less fuel. Later stages will see fully electric aircraft tested. The Western Isles has also become a centre of sustainable aviation innovation. Test flights of Unmanned Air Vehicles (UAVs), more commonly called drones, took place during 2021. These pilotless aircraft carried useful small package loads with high efficiency.

Covid samples were flown between islands and hospitals saving significant time. UK Government funding will see flights based on this technology become regular from a new base at Oban airport. Electrically powered UAVs will soon be cleared to carry medical samples and freight between Oban and island landing sites which do not need to be airports. Your Amazon delivery may soon have a new option.

Backed by a very large and always innovative aviation industry, Scotland will be ready to play its part in the new sustainable world developing over the next years and decades.

Doug Maclean: Professional aviation observer from DKM Aviation Ltd.