THE owners of Durham Tees Valley airport were tonight (Monday, September 14) accused of hitting workers with a "pensions bombshell" after it emerged Peel Airports was seeking to pull out of a local government pension scheme in a bid to save £6.5m.

Peel only informed workers of the changes to their pensions after the details were leaked today (Monday).

There are about 70 workers believed to be affected. Peel plans to take them off their Local Government pension scheme - which was originally agreed would continue for staff after the airport transferred into private hands - to save the company £6.5m.

Peel had already started to approach the local authorities - which collectively own an 11 per cent stake in the airport - for approval for the pension switch.

That is part of a "masterplan" to ensure the long-term viability of the airport, which now only has two flight destinations remaining, Aberdeen and Amsterdam Schipol.

Peel is understood to have told local authorities that without approval for its scheme, the viability of the airport was in doubt.

GMB regional organiser Suzanne Reid said: "A lot of staff have worked at the airport for a long time. They have done all they can to help the airport keep going, taking cuts in pay, changes to their terms and conditions, and the one thing they always held on to through all that was that they had a good pension.

"The worst thing is that Peel have tried to do it secretly. We had a meeting recently with the airport when they updated us but they didn't mention this."

Mike Hill, Regional Organiser for Unison, said workers had been paying into the local government pension scheme on Teesside for years and it was one of the best going.

Both unions said it was "unacceptable" that workers should have to sacrifice their pension rights and they would fight any move to do so.

Bill Dixon, leader of Darlington Borough Council, said: "We need to keep the routes from the airport, and we are talking about a handful of people having their pension transferred. It is something that we would rather not have but if that is the cost of keeping the airport open then it is significant. The vast majority of passengers are for businesses which rely on those routes and those businesses are incredibly important to the region.

"Many regional airports have had to close and we don't want that to happen to ours."

Peel would only issue a statement that it had released to The Northern Echo last week, saying that it had asked local authorities' approval for a "further proposal" to secure the airport's future, but that the plan was commercially sensitive.