Alastair Dalton: Shetland’s Scatsta airport needs to survive

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It is Scotland’s most northerly and one of its most obscure airports, known to few outside the oil and gas industry.

However, Scatsta in Shetland is effectively also one of the UK’s newest, with a brand-new terminal complex which belies its wartime origins.

On a recent visit, I did not know what to expect as I approached by road before dawn. Far from comprising just a tiny building as might befit its remote location, blazing lights illuminated a modern air base as if it was a military airfield.

The runway is also so narrow that traffic lights halt vehicles on the adjacent B9076 road for safety when aircraft take off and land.

Inside the airport, there are no car park charges, no taxi rank, not even signs to the terminal entrance. You head for the only lit doorway in sight, the lettering above it spelling Scatsta.

The rebuilt terminal is less than two years old, which, along with a new aircraft hangar and control tower, are part of the airport’s five-year regeneration project by operator Serco.

But facilities are sparse. There’s no duty-free, no shops at all in fact, just a vending machine.

The departure lounge is pretty much just seating, albeit with a few helpful touches, such as a lack of those annoying seat dividers found at other airports, so that passengers can stretch out – even sleep – while awaiting delayed flights.

That’s handy, even necessary, considering the toll that bad weather can have on aircraft schedules at Scatsta, a topic much complained about on social media.

Scatsta started life as an RAF base in 1940, supporting the nearby RAF Sullom Voe, which operated anti-submarine Catalina flying boats.

The oil boom saw its rebirth in 1978 as the air gateway to the Sullom Voe oil terminal, and 2016 will mark Serco’s 20th year in charge.

Virtually all flights are for the energy industries, with Scatsta a staging post for transfers to offshore platforms. Fixed-wing aircraft shuttle workers from Aberdeen, to be transferred to helicopters, which take up to 45 minutes to the furthest flung rigs. Wearing a bulky survival suit in the confines of a helicopter, I’m told that’s eminently preferable to the alternative two-and-a-half hours direct from Aberdeen.

Scatsta is the least known Scottish transport operation run by the outsourcing firm, which operates NorthLink Ferries, took over the Caledonian Sleeper last year and is bidding for the next CalMac contract.

The airport is also among Serco’s toughest challenges, as it struggles with the downturn in the oil industry. Some operators have ended their helicopter flights, the airport’s operating hours have been cut from 14 to ten hours a day, and one in five of its 104 staff are being laid off.

Scatsta is counting on innovation to help pull itself through. Serco sees Scatsta as a one-stop-shop showcase for running an airport, from air traffic control to security.

Its state-of-the-art fire station, whose tenders can accelerate faster than some cars, is used to train firefighters from other airports.

Scatsta is also one of the few airports to weigh all passengers to provide accurate information about an aircraft’s total weight rather than relying on estimates. This is important in smaller fixed-wing aircraft, such as those which fly between Scatsta and Aberdeen, so they can safely carry extra payloads.

The continuing challenging conditions for the oil industry mean Scatsta will have to continue to innovate to survive. But with so much invested – more than £6 million in the control tower alone – it is seen as vital that the future of the airport is secured.