FAQ – Air Traffic Service provision at Benbecula and Wick John O’Groats

Currently, Benbecula and Wick John O’Groats handle a low number of aircraft movements at around 4,000 per year, in comparison to Stornoway, which handles over 10,000, and Kirkwall at over 14,000.  To provide an appropriate level of air traffic service proportionate to the volume and complexity of air traffic at Benbecula and Wick John O’Groats, the Board agreed to a recommendation to pursue a revision in the level of air traffic service from an Air Traffic Control (ATC) service to an Aerodrome Flight Information Service (AFIS).

This is on the basis that the ‘Wick Approach’ function will be provided from a joint Kirkwall/Wick John O’Groats surveillance sector in the new Combined Surveillance Centre (CSC) during normal opening hours.  The earliest possible date for a change in the level of Air Traffic Service (ATS) at Benbecula will be will be December 2021.

The change of service at Wick John O’Groats is scheduled for December 2023. This will allow us time to consult with our staff, trade unions and stakeholders and ascertain the most appropriate date for Benbecula to make the transition within the wider ATMS programme.

The level and complexity of traffic using the airports and operating in its environs is low and as such can handled safely and efficiently as an AFIS unit. This is in line with industry norms for this type of airport.  Benbecula and Wick John O’Groats have only slightly more traffic movements than Islay, which has provided a safe and efficient service for many years.

However, the new AFIS unit at Benbecula will be larger than the unit at Islay and will have the benefit of a newly installed surveillance based ‘Aerodrome Flight Information Service Officer (AFISO) situational awareness tool’.

Wick John O’Groats will have a new radar position provided at the CSC. Furthermore, the AFIS units at Benbecula and Wick John O’Groats will retain a significant amount of the ATC systems including a Semi-Automatic Meteorological Observing System (SAMOS), Voice Communication Control System (VCCS) and Airfield Ground Lighting (AGL).

The recommendation is primarily based on providing a proportional level of ATS relative to the volume and complexity of air traffic that operates at and in the environs of the aerodrome.
This decision is also influenced by European Union (EU) regulation and United Kingdom (UK) regulatory momentum, which will require ANSPs to introduce controlled airspace at aerodromes that provide an ‘ATC’ service.  Based on the level of traffic and complexity at Benbecula and Wick John O’Groats it is highly unlikely that an application to introduce controlled airspace will be approved by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA).

Therefore, Highlands and Islands Airports Limited (HIAL) would have to consider replacing the ATC service with a more proportionate level of ATS, which does not require controlled airspace, at some stage in the future. The revision of the level of ATS will allow staff who do not wish to relocate to the CSC an alternative role as an AFISO in Benbecula and Wick John O’Groats respectively, and provide employment opportunity in the areas.

Q. Is this decision based on cost-saving?
A. The recommendation is based on a proportional level of ATS and impending EU regulation and UK requirements for controlled airspace at aerodromes that provide an ATC service.

Whilst there will be some efficiencies in the overall ATMS programme costs, the introduction of a full-time AFIS will require investment in Benbecula. There will be considerable investment in the provision of radar surveillance equipment at Wick John O’Groats, and in the installation of a surveillance based ‘AFISO situational awareness tool’ and the creation of a number of full time AFISO positions at both Benbecula and Wick John O’Groats.

Q. Is this change a reduction of service at Benbecula and Wick?
A. This is a move towards a more proportionate level of service. This will offer additional operational flexibilities for airlines and local communities to facilitate late or early running flights.

Q. Will a change to AFIS mean safety will be compromised?
A. The change in service provision will not affect the safety of air traffic. The volume and complexity of air traffic can be handled safely and efficiently as an Aerodrome Flight Information Service (AFIS) unit. This is in line with industry norms for this type of airport and has operated safety and successfully at four other HIAL airports for a number of years.

Q. Will this remove employment opportunities on the island?
A. The HIAL Board is seeking to implement the new proposals to ‘future-proof’ air service operations across each of the seven airports in order to protect the services that we deliver to the communities we serve.

Whilst there may be a relocation of a number of jobs, HIAL will remain a significant and committed employer in our communities, offering high quality local employment.

We want to offer our air traffic control staff the best opportunities for career progression within the organisation; therefore, the company must modernise its operations.

There will be new full-time AFISO roles, which will provide employment opportunities in the area.

Q. What work needs to be completed to allow the change in service provision at Wick John O’Groats and Benbecula?
A. We need to consult with our staff, trade unions and key stakeholders on the revised ATS.
We must also agree the changes with the regulator and then consider the overall workload of the programme and the resources required to support a service change in line with other priorities within the programme.

Q. Has the CAA already approved the proposal to introduce an AFIS at Benbecula and Wick John O’Groats?
A. Whilst informal discussion has taken place with the CAA, no change can take place until such time as an operational plan, detailed safety case and comprehensive transition plan has been submitted to the CAA for consideration and approval.

Q. Why is the approach different at Wick John O’Groats to that for Benbecula?
A. Whilst the volume of air traffic is similar to that at Benbecula, the complexity of air traffic over Wick John O’Groats and potential conflicts between overflights and arrivals and departures requires a radar position to be established in the CSC. The joint radar position is being created due to the close proximity of both aerodromes and the integrated nature of the airspace. This will allow the efficient management of approach services to both units.

Q. How many AFISO posts will there be?
A. There will be a minimum of three new full-time AFISO positions in addition to the six existing part-time positions at Benbecula and Wick John O’Groats.

The full-time AFISOs at each airport will manage the day-to-day AFIS whilst the six part-time AFISOs will continue to provide the out of hours on-call service for the emergency services. This will provide an additional option for Air Traffic Control Officers (ATCOs) who may not want to relocate to the new CSC and/or part-time AFISOs that might aspire to a full-time position in ATS.

Q. Can ATCOs at Benbecula and Wick John O’Groats transfer to the CSC as an ATCO?
A. Yes absolutely, all ATCOs will have the same opportunity as ATCOs from other locations to transfer to the CSC and acquire new ratings and validations.

ATCOs who do not wish to transfer to the CSC will be given the option to be redeployed in this role.

Q. What are the options for staff who don’t transfer to the CSC and do not wish to be considered for the AFISO role?
A. We will endeavour to accommodate all staff to join the programme, but recognise this may not be possible for some. We will explore all avenues for those who choose not to join the programme. To support us with specialist advice, we plan to engage with outplacement specialists to tailor individual support packages to help staff make the right choice for them.