UNION bosses are to meet airport management on Wednesday in a last-ditch bid to avert a 48-hour strike across the Highlands and Islands by security staff.
The dispute over pay and conditions threatens to cause Easter holiday travel chaos across the north if the workers walk out next week.
But the two side have agreed to meet in Inverness to attempt to thrash out a peace deal which could end the strike.
Airport chiefs claim the Prospect union is demanding the equivalent of a 30% pay increase for its members.
Operators Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd (HIAL) said it would attempt to ensure operations at its 11 airports would continue if the strike goes ahead, but admit the situation would be “challenging”.
The staff affected are part of Airport Management Services Ltd, and 87% of Prospect union members who work for AMSL voted in favour of a strike., with an 85% turnout.
They plan to walk out at noon on 7 April.
Prospect national secretary Alan Denney has accepted an invitation by HIAL to resume discussions.
He said: “Despite the fact that I am on annual leave, I have made arrangements to meet them on Wednesday morning.
“Hopefully we will have a positive story on Wednesday afternoon.”
The union claims the majority of security staff receive “inferior terms for work of equal value compared with other workers.
The staff are responsible for carrying out searches and operating X-ray equipment at 11 airports, including Inverness.
Inglis Lyon, Managing Director of HIAL said: “ We have shown a willingness to engage with the union and we are prepared to consider more realistic claims from them. However, we cannot accede to demands for a near 30% pay increase.”
He has moved to reassure passengers that its airports will open as normal despite the threat of industrial action by members of Prospect.
He outlined ways HIAL had attempted to improve conditions for the workers, adding: “Security staff were transferred from a third party contractor to a new HIAL subsidiary company, AMSL, in July 2009.
“Since then, and in an attempt to address low pay provisions, AMSL staff have enjoyed an 30% increase in basic pay over five years.
“A new pension scheme has also been introduced, a significant improvement given that no provision previously existed. The generous scheme provides for company support of three times that of the individual.”
HIAL operates airports at Inverness, Stornoway, Kirkwall, Sumburgh, Wick, Benbecula, Barra, Tiree, Islay, Cambeltown and Dundee.
Prospect is pushing for a series of measures amounting to an almost 30% pay increase for some of its members. This comprises a basic pay rise, equilisation with HIAL’s terms and conditions, and parity with Sumburgh Airport employees in Shetland.
Mr Lyon said: “The latter demand is particularly unreasonable given that wages at Sumburgh are traditionally higher than on the mainland because of the higher cost of living, low unemployment rates and a buoyant oil based economy which has traditionally attracted higher wages.
“We have taken steps to improve pay, terms and conditions for AMSL staff and we are prepared to discuss further improvements with Prospect.”
He added: “HIAL is governed by the Scottish Government pay policy and cannot accede to Prospect’s unrealistic demands. “However, we remain open to further dialogue with Prospect and to continuing our constructive approach. Even at this late stage, we hope that industrial action can be averted.
“However, passengers can be assured that we will work hard to keep any disruption to a minimum and ensure that a near normal service can be provided.
“Given the unrealistic nature of the claim, at almost 30%, Prospect have been asked to modify their claim and highlight which elements they would be prepared to negotiate on, but have thus far refused. HIAL, on the other hand, remains open to further negotiation.”