At the end of last month, I had the pleasure of taking a team from NATS to exhibit at an event in Inverness organised by Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd (HIAL) all around their new air traffic management strategy.

HIAL’s long-term approach aims to transform operations at seven of its 11 airports – Sumburgh, Dundee, Inverness, Wick John O’Groats, Kirkwall, Stornoway and Benbecula.

These airports, and the teams that run them, provide an absolutely vital service for their local communities. Having a strong, considered and sustainable plan that ensures they stay open and viable is at the heart of HIAL’s strategy, which is why, among other changes to controlled airspace and radar technology, it includes the use of digital control towers.

Camera technology at each of the airports would now make it possible for the ATC service to be managed from a single control centre, making it more efficient, cost effective and operationally resilient, and it’s this strategy that HIAL is currently publicising.

The aim of the event was to give the public, politicians and the wider team at HIAL – from the controllers and executive directors to the Trade Union representatives – a chance to get hands on with some of the digital tower technology, to demystify it and to understand what it might mean for the future.

On the day, we had people there with experience of digital towers and managing major project transitions, as well as the day-to-day NATS/HIAL working relationship and the Scottish ATM environment.

We weren’t quite sure what to expect as we weren’t showcasing any technology, but it was a great event and in general, visitors seemed accepting of and even excited by the concept. Ensuring high speed internet connectivity – a prerequisite for the technology to work effectively – was considered to be an issue by some, but the reaction to our stand, which included a Virtual Reality tour of our digital tower facility at Swanwick, was fantastic.

Even though we were at a technology event, the biggest challenge to overcome will be managing the ‘people’ aspects of a change of this scale. Working closely with those affected and offering open and clear communication will be as important as getting the technology right in a project like this.

NATS has lot of experiencing of managing the ‘people’ element of big operational transitions –which includes moving the current London City team to their new digital tower at Swanwick Centre over the next year or so – and we know the challenges and pitfalls. Events like this one are absolutely the right thing to do and seemed to go down well with everyone we had a chance to speak with.

We’ll continue to support HIAL and work with them over the next few months, but whatever the outcome of the current tender process, I wish the entire HIAL team every success in something that is truly transformational. This is a hugely exciting project both technically and operationally, but also for the long term future of these communities and the unsung teams that serve them.


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