By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
A senior Bahamian airline executive yesterday warned that the weekend industrial action by air traffic controllers had given the tourism industry “a black eye we cannot afford”.
Captain Randy Butler, Sky Bahamas president and chief executive, told Tribune Business that visitors who were inconvenienced and frustrated by delayed/cancelled flights would be unlikely to return to this nation.
Explaining that the situation forced Sky Bahamas to incur increased costs, as a result of having to pay overtime to staff who had to work into the evenings as a result of the delays, Captain Butler pleaded for “cooler heads” to prevail on all sides.
He called for a “mediator” to be present at today’s meeting between the Government and BATCU, the air traffic controllers union, to control the seemingly “hostile environment” between the two sides.
Glenys Hanna Martin, minister of transport and aviation, said in a statement that the two-three hour ‘no show’ by air traffic controllers, which brought Saturday morning traffic at Lynden Pindling International Airport (LPIA) to a standstill, stemmed from concerns over new security procedures at the airport.
She explained that the screening of air traffic controllers, as well as all airside personnel at LPIA, was essential to prevent a global warning being posted about the airport having security deficiencies.
Such a warning, she added, could do immeasurable harm to the Bahamas’ reputation and its economy, and especially its largest industry, tourism.
“The inclusion of the screening of air traffic controllers is a direct mandate by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), which advised the Government of its imminent intent to post globally that this specific deficiency made LPIA a vulnerable aerodrome as it relates to security, and noting that such action would seriously and negatively impact the economy and reputation of the Bahamas,” Mrs Hanna Martin said.
“These concerns were also documented by the US Transportation Security Administration.”
However, Obie Ferguson, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) president, suggested to Tribune Business yesterday that the air traffic controllers’ grievances may extend beyond security screening.
He revealed that he had been asked by the BATCU, as a TUC affiliate, to resolve the issue of outstanding overtime payments it believes are due to its members from the Government.
“There’s a question as to payment for holidays worked that is still due and owing,” Mr Ferguson said. “I would hope this week that it can be resolved.....
“I was asked to look into it on behalf of those people. I was in discussions with the Government on Friday with respect to overtime payments. I was not aware of the withdrawal of labour; what happened there.
“I was not privy to it before it happened. The only thing I was aware of was the failure to make payment for overtime; that work was not paid. The TUC is very much involved in bringing resolution to this matter.”
Captain Butler, meanwhile, told Tribune Business that the air traffic controllers’ concerns did not justify the effective shut down of aviation and the Bahamas’ main airport.
“I don’t know is this is something knew that they’re doing,” he said of LPIA, “but security checks are the reality. That’s the way we live now.”
Some six Sky Bahamas flights suffered delays of between two to three hours on Saturday as a result, and Captain Butler said: “It’s definitely a black eye for our tourism industry, and we can’t afford that right now.
“You’re talking about tourism, connecting the Family Islands, and this is the only way we can connect them. When folks have these kinds of experiences, they tend not to come back.”
Captain Butler said Sky Bahamas incurred increased overtime costs as the delays pushed some flights into the evening.
He added, though, that the greatest impact would have been on visitors and Bahamians trying to catch connecting flights at LPIA, only to find they had missed them as a result of the delays. Those impacted in such a way would have faced the extra cost and inconvenience of having to overnight in Nassau.
Acknowledging that the labour withdrawal, and resulting disruption, had come during tourism’s off-peak season, Captain Butler still argued that the Bahamas could ill-afford a repeat.
He called for an independent mediator to be present at today’s meeting between the Government and BATCU, and urged that “cooler heads prevail”.
“I saw the minister’s release, and it was pretty harsh,” Captain Butler said. “If anything good is to come out of today’s meeting, we’ve got to have a mediator in there. It seems there is a hostile environment.
“I’m hoping for cooler minds, and when we have reasonable people at the table, reasonable people prevail. This can’t be a security check; it happens every day of the week.”
According to the Ministry of Transport and Aviation, two flights were cancelled as a result of the labour withdrawal, with Delta, Jet Blue and American Airlines suggesting “large numbers of missed connections” by passengers.
Delta Airlines’ four Saturday flights, largely full, were delayed by an average three hours, with 90 per cent of passengers set to miss connections.
Mrs Hanna Martin said: “I wish to assure the Bahamian people that the Government will not compromise on securing LPIA in accordance with international standards and in our own national interest, and I am calling on the union to be responsible and proportionate in its actions so as to not cause undue harm to the Bahamian people.”