By RICARDO WELLS
Tribune Staff Reporter
TRANSPORT and Aviation Minister Glenys Hanna Martin yesterday accused members of the Bahamas Air Traffic Controllers Union of “strong arming” aviation officials after an international flight to Grand Bahama was diverted to the Lynden Pindling International Airport amid disputes about overtime pay.
According to reports, a Sunwing Airlines flight carrying 186 passengers was 15 minutes away from Grand Bahama when it had to be diverted to Nassau after an air traffic controller opted not to direct the flight in because it would have arrived past 10pm, when his shift ended.
Mrs Hanna Martin said the union’s recent tactics have been nothing short of a “leveraging act” to get the government to bend to its way in ongoing negotiations.
Earlier this month, air traffic controllers in Grand Bahama gave notice that they would no longer work beyond the 10pm services deadline because they have not been paid overtime owed to them.
In response, the Ministry of Transport and Aviation announced that it would put in place the necessary contingencies to assure that there would be no disruption in services.
Meanwhile, Mrs Hanna Martin said due to the union’s ongoing negotiations with her ministry, she thought members would work in good faith, with both sides working to avoid matters similar to what transpired Tuesday night.
She told The Tribune that BATCU has decided to use its importance to the industry as means to get what it wants.
However, BATCU President Lashan Gray, in a statement released yesterday, said it was “unfortunate” that union members had to take a stand in order for their fundamental rights to be acknowledged.
In an effort to clarify Tuesday night’s incident, Mrs Gray said the Department of Civil Aviation had been contacted Tuesday afternoon by an airline about its late flight. She added that officials are tasked with ensuring that the necessary staff is in place if a flight is due to land after an airport is closed.
Mrs Gray claimed that instead of advising the company of the department’s inability to accommodate the after hours flight, the department encouraged the flight to continue and informed the employees that it would be in before 10pm.
She said non-payment of overtime to air traffic controllers is no new issue within the Department of Civil Aviation, nor the Ministry of Transport & Aviation.
She said: “It is unbelievable that the minister would therefore seek to place the blame at the feet of the employee where the Bahamas government seeks to continue in its abuse and disregard of the Bahamian workers and the very laws they themselves legislated.
“The Bahamas Air Traffic Controllers’ Union will not continue to allow foreign interests and convenience to trump the fundamental rights and dignity of our members.
“It is unfortunate that the government’s negligence has led to an international airline being inconvenienced, especially where these airlines are charged overtime fees for the very services the government refuses to pay.
“Nonetheless, members of the Bahamas Air Traffic Controllers’ Union cannot and will not continue to shoulder such burdens which are unreasonable for them to bear at the expense of themselves, their rights and overall wellbeing, nor at the detriment of their families.
“It is confusing that having information well in advance of 10pm that the controller was incapable of remaining beyond his shift, and having contingency measures, that nothing was put in place. That responsibility lies solely on the department.”
She said the operating hours for Freeport’s airport are internationally published as 6am to 10pm.
“The department now seeks to vilify an employee who had emergency personal affairs to attend to when the department, ministry and government have failed in their duty to do what is right and fair by the employees in order to have been able to better accommodate the late flight.”
Mrs Hanna Martin noted that aviation officials are awaiting a full report of Tuesday’s incident and would withhold direct statements until it has been received.
The 186 passengers of the Sunwing flight were all accommodated over-night in Nassau and flown to Grand Bahama yesterday afternoon at the cost of the airline.
Earlier this month, Ministry of Transport and Aviation officials requested a meeting with members of BATCU, along with representatives from two other government departments with the object of brokering “fairness and industrial harmony” in the industry.