LADYVILLE, Belize District, Mon. Feb. 23, 2015–Government officials are refusing to call the actions of air traffic controllers (ATC) at the Philip Goldson International Airport (PGIA) a “strike,” but there is no other way to explain the fact that six of the controllers called in “sick” on Saturday morning, causing chaos at the airport – flights could not leave, nor could flights land.
Because the airport and its functions are so important to the nation, it is, by law, categorized as an essential service, and the controllers cannot take industrial action by declaring a strike. If they wish their employers to “get the message,” therefore, they must call in sick. The effect, essentially, is the same as going on strike – the airport shuts down.
The tactic is well-known and used by “essential services” workers to make the government know that they are serious about their demands, without getting into trouble with the law. It is the first time, however, that an entire essential service has been forcibly shut down by this means.
Early Saturday morning, the skies over Ladyville were quiet, as word began to spread that “air traffic controllers were on strike.” No planes could land or take off from the Philip Goldson International Airport, (PGIA) even as a constant stream of air travelers booked on domestic and international flights began to fill the various departure lounge areas, and additional uniformed and armed police were dispatched to maintain law and order.
No one in authority had any idea that a handful of air traffic controllers would shut down air travel in Belize without even a whisper in the grapevine—an action that has all the hallmarks of precise coordination and appeared to be sending an unequivocal message of discontent to their employers, the Government of Belize.
The problem became apparent from as early as 7:00 a.m. when a Tropic Air flight from Punta Gorda Town was scheduled to land at the PGIA but it was diverted to the Municipal Air Strip, in Belize City.
The action apparently caught the government by surprise, and it scrambled to get in other controllers from outside the country.
The Director of Civil Aviation, Lindsay Garbutt, in a hastily convened press briefing along with CEO in the Ministry of Tourism (under which the Department of Civil Aviation falls), Tracy Taegar-Panton, went on to explain that as a part of their backup system they had trained three Central Americans and they would be bringing them into the country that day to man the air traffic control towers.
At that briefing on Saturday, Garbutt stated, “On Saturday, February 21, 2015, at 6:10 a.m. the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Civil Aviation, and its Department of Civil Aviation were informed that the air traffic controllers scheduled to work the 6 a.m. to 12 p.m. shift at the Control Tower of the Philip Goldson International Airport had reported in sick. Subsequently, the Department of Civil Aviation has also received indication that some of the air traffic controllers scheduled to work the 12:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. shift had also reported in sick. “
Garbutt continued, “The airlines had been advised of this situation.”
Garbutt went on to say, while noting that two earlier flights for Delta and Avianca had been affected, that a controller would soon be coming in and that they would “have this situation restored shortly.”
At a press conference held today, Monday, at the PGIA, government reps took great pains to say that the controllers had not done anything illegal and that there were no unresolved issues on the table to explain why so many officers were “sick” on the same day, with such devastating consequences for the tourism industry and air travelers in general.
Yesterday, Sunday, three air traffic controllers reported for duty, but were turned back and told that they would not be allowed to work until after a meeting today at 1:30 p.m. at the Civil Aviation Department, located on the PGIA compound.
This afternoon, reporters were allowed to wait behind the chain link fence which separates the Department of Civil Aviation from one of the airport’s two parking lots. In the meeting with the air traffic controllers were senior government officials, which included CEO in the Ministry of Tourism, Tracy Taegar-Panton; CEO in the Ministry of the Public Service, Marion McNab; Director of Civil Aviation, Lindsay Garbutt; and the Deputy Director of Civil Aviation Hilberto Torres; as well as Public Service Union (PSU) Industrial Relations Officer Ray Davis. The meeting went on for over three hours, and when it concluded, Davis spoke to reporters about the outcome.
“There have been issues that have been raised and are continuing,” Davis remarked when asked if the issues of concern to the controllers had been resolved.
“I am not even countenancing what the media has called a sick-out. There was no such thing as a sick-out. There is what I might term an unhappy convergence of coincidence,” Davis insisted.
Davis went on to explain that the Ministry was not quite sure of what had happened, which is why they called the meeting.
“These persons reported ill. They were sick and that is the end of that,” Davis responded in answer to a question if there would be penalties for the officers who did not show up at work.
While refusing to admit that the controllers had gone on a strike, albeit “through the back door,” Davis admitted that the PSU had been alerted about a year ago about the conditions under which air traffic controllers work. One of the burning issues, he admitted, is vacation time and the long shifts that the controllers have to work.
“The director (of Civil Aviation) has not characterized it as a sick-out,” Davis said about the air traffic controllers’ absence from work on Saturday.
Civil Aviation Director, Lindsay Garbutt, told reporters that they are happy that they were able to sit down and have the kind of discussion that they did and that they are moving forward.
Garbutt said his department, the ministry and the country of Belize owe a huge debt to the people who came in on Saturday and saved the industry from what could have been a catastrophic situation.
“There were several persons, I don’t particularly want to name them, but their efforts were recognized,” Garbutt said, in reference to the controllers that the government had to rely on to man the airport tower from Saturday up to today, Monday. At least one of these controllers is from Guatemala, and is presumably among the three controllers who were trained.
Asked if he believed that all the controllers were sick on Saturday, Garbutt explained, “It is impossible not to accept what was said. When one is in management, one has to be very careful, recognizing that each and every public officer has certain rights and privileges that each and every public officer has, and one must respect those rights and privileges.”
“If there is one thing that came out of Saturday’s event, it is that these people [air traffic controllers] have a very important function. We are not at present working with the optimum amount of people needed,” Garbutt admitted.
Garbutt denied that he has characterized Saturday’s absence from work on the part of the controllers as a “sick-out.”
“We are not working with the optimum amount of people. We hired six ATCs [air traffic controllers] and are prepared to hire nine more to bring the ATC unit up to full strength as early as possible,” Garbutt said.
“There is a financial plan in place with our regional partner COCESNA to have the entire control center change and to bring it up to the most recent technology,” Garbutt went on to say.
Garbutt added, “It is impossible not to commend the hard work and the extra hours that these people are willing to work. It is not an issue that we can address in a day or in six months, but every day we are working to bring the situation to a normal situation, where we will have a full complement of staff.”
Garbutt said that they are trying to bring the staff up to 30. Presently, he said, there are approximately 10 ATCs employed by the Government of Belize.
Garbutt said government has trained three air traffic controllers and is looking to train six more by April, because, he said, “we know that we should have more air traffic controllers”.
At the initial press briefing on Saturday, Garbutt had said that the air traffic controllers were not involved in negotiations through a trade union and that government has had many meetings with them in the last two years to address their concerns.
According to Garbutt, 13 flights had been affected by the sick-out.
The Air Traffic Controllers News (ATC News.com) reported on Saturday, “The Belize International Airport, also known as the PGIA, was shut down today following a sickout by air traffic controllers. Over six international flights including Delta and Avianca were affected, some being diverted to Honduras and Guatemala, and others cancelled as chaos reigned in the early morning when air controllers failed to show up for work at the country’s only operational international airport. Local news reports and street intelligence say that Belize air traffic controllers have been seething for some time now over low wages, long working hours, and the hiring of political cronies with no qualifications to be inside an airport control tower.”
The PGIA returns to normal operations at 6:00 a.m. tomorrow, Tuesday.
Government was expected to issue a press release on the situation at the PGIA, but up to press time tonight, no such release has been issued.