Airport strike grounds flights for second night

– Benn says action ‘unlawful’, hints employees could face dismissal

The ongoing strike action by aircraft controllers forced the Cheddi Jagan International Airport (CJIA) to be closed for a second night last night and Minister of Transport and Hydraulics Robeson Benn late last night deemed the strike unlawful and hinted that the workers could be fired if they did not immediately return to work.

Stabroek News understands that airport management has since informed airlines that there will be no more night flights until further notice as it continues to struggle to fill the void left by the 25 air traffic controllers who have gone on strike, protesting a number of issues.

Robeson Benn
Robeson Benn

According to reports reaching this newspaper, three support staff members, who were assisting in the operation of the tower since Friday night, did not report to work yesterday, for various reasons. A lone female staff member reported to work at 4 am yesterday and worked past the stipulated eight hours up to 6 pm, after which the tower had to be closed.

Sources yesterday told Stabroek News that at least three flights were expected last evening but these would have had to be cancelled. A number of other flights, which normally stop at the airport to be refueled, would have also been affected and even flights that use the air space would suffer.

Meanwhile, Benn, in a statement last night, said that the action by the air traffic controllers was “compromising the industry they serve and the larger national interest.” The minister said he has been advised that in the absence of any representation agreement, the action taken by the workers is “considered unfounded and unlawful and the Minister of Labour [Manzoor Nadir] has been contacted to ensure an immediate resumption of work before any discussions can been be proceeded with, since the GCAA [Guyana Civil Aviation Authority] cannot engage under duress.” He said the action taken by the employees, who are contracted workers, is consistent with being in breach of contract. “Failure of the employees to return to work would indicate a voluntary separation of the employees from their employment with the GCAA,” the minister said.

The workers last night remained resolute in their bid to have issues, which they say have been ongoing for a long time, resolved before returning to work. They said the minister’s threat about firing them only made them “stronger.”

‘Feeling the heat’

Stabroek News was told that Caribbean Airlines is the most affected as the airline is already feeling the heat financially, as it is forced to find money for boarding and food for affected passengers and even for staff who would be forced to work over time. Stabroek News understands that it risky having a single person manning the tower at anytime and this is stated in the GCAA regulations that at no time should one person work unless it is due to unforeseen circumstances.

Meanwhile, this newspaper has been reliably informed that Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) employees are in Guyana to test the airport’s navigational aid equipment and this has to be done with the assistance of technicians. The technicians are on strike and as such the test cannot be done and it is costing the airport a hefty sum to keep the aircraft and the FAA officials in Guyana. It was pointed out that the air traffic controllers work under very stressful circumstances and it takes “a lot to maintain our licences. You are working with the knowledge behind your head that any mistake you make can have fatal consequences,” one source said.

Every year they are forced to undergo a “rigorous medical examination and not by any doctor but by an appointed doctor and if you fail that then that’s it for you.”  The workers also have to undergo recurrent training annually to ensure that they are still cognisant of all the procedures or else they will lose their licences. “And it is very specialized training. It is not you just going to university and being trained. You have to train all the time,” another source said.

Because of the strike, the usual information available 75 miles from the airport to aircraft flying into the interior is not available and as such should a local aircraft run into some difficulty there would be no record of it. There are also no air traffic controllers working at the Ogle Airport so flights leaving from there are basically left on their own.

‘Unfair characterization’

Last evening Benn said statements in the press have given an unfair characterisation of the reasons and circumstances leading to the strike by the workers. The minister pointed out that GCAA is a national semi-autonomous and subvention agency which currently has to make an urgent contribution of an estimated $120 million to $780 million critical capital procurement and works upgrade programme for Air Navigation Equipment for the ATC tower. He said the government has already sequestered on GCAA’s behalf, $660 million for “this critical upgrade which has also been requested by technical staff in the past.” He said the GCAA does not have the ability to pay.

“Increases in wages and salaries for subvention or semi-autonomous agencies are not necessarily linked to any increases granted by the government to the traditional pensionable public service, particularly so when the wages and salaries enjoyed by a semi-autonomous agency are significantly above that of the tradition public service,” the minister said.

That statement by the minister could be in direct response to the workers’ claim that while they were fighting for their increase and being told there was no money they were very hurt when they noticed that government had paid out over $300 million in a bonus.

According to the minister the GCAA’s employees as a group, and by comparative scales, “are very well taken care of, all things considered. The minister said that in 2008, the government supported payments to the GCAA, which equated three years “retroactive payment,” in an effort to remove any issue of wages and salaries beyond the concern of GCAA employees and it was then indicated that there would be no foreseeable call for increases considering “the perilous financial state of the authority.”

However, workers are claiming that they are owed retroactive overtime payment on salary scale adjustments, a 10 per cent increase in wages and salaries for last year and salary and leave advances. Additionally, workers want management to address the issue of substantive appointments as well as maximum work hours per month for Air Navigation Services staff. The employees are also asking for better training for staff and duty-free concessions for senior staff members.

It was noted that Benn, who had stopped a payment that the GCAA was prepared to give employees, had said that there was no money to pay them yet the employees are seeing “all kinds of unnecessary expenditure.” These include landscaping around the CJIA tower, painting and even covering of floors. “These are being done especially at a time when you are telling employees that you have no money to give them,” sources said.

Last year when there was no response to a letter written to the minister the employees wrote to President Bharrat Jagdeo who instructed Head of the Presidential Secretariat, Dr Roger Luncheon to meet them. The sources said they had several meetings with Dr Luncheon but late last year they stopped hearing from him and a scheduled meeting did not materialise.

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