THE year was 1981. President Ronald Reagan was only six months into his presidency when America’s air traffic controllers called a strike, demanding higher salaries, a shorter work week and better working conditions.
The new president, realising the enormity of their action, informed them that they were violating the law. He told them in no uncertain terms that if they were not back to work within 48 hours, they would have forfeited their jobs and would be fired. Apparently, they didn’t take him seriously. At the end of 48 hours, President Reagan had fired 11,345 traffic controllers. Not only were they out of a job, but they were never able to work again in a control tower.
Last month, two other high ranking US public officials learned the hard way that interfering with public transport - in the skies or on land — is a serious business and could mean jail time. In 2013 to punish Fort Lee’s mayor for refusing to endorse New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s bid for re-election, two of his aides brought traffic to a standstill by ordering the closure of several toll lanes on the busy George Washington Bridge. For several hours it caused a serious and dangerous gridlock. They were found guilty — one was sentenced to 18 months, the second to two years in prison. They are to appeal. It probably also cost Governor Christie his presidential bid for the White House.
Here in The Bahamas there has been unrest for sometime in the Traffic Control Tower of the Lynden Pindling Airport over basically the same issues as the American controllers. But what neither side seemed to grasp is that air transport is an essential service - not only does a strike inconvenience the travelling public and destroy a country’s economy - especially if, like The Bahamas, that economy depends upon tourism – but it endangers people’s lives. Imagine being in an aircraft in a holding pattern above, the aircraft running low on fuel, and the pilot being refused the all-clear to land.
Traffic controllers might believe they deserve better pay, but a passenger’s life is far more important than anyone’s pocket book. However, this does not mean that a government should take advantage of the controllers’ situation. A government representative has a duty to sit around the table with them to try to come to some agreement. If this is not done quickly, a dissatisfied travelling public will cross The Bahamas off as a port of call … and that would be the end of what could have been a wonderful success story for a tiny nation. The airport would close, the economy would be destroyed. This would affect every Bahamian — and the traffic controllers’ only problem would be to find a new, but non-existent job.
In 2001, government and the controllers union (BATCU) were trying to hammer out an agreement. In general, the proposed agreement was accepted and being acted upon when the Minister indicated that the issue of outstanding holiday pay should go to the Attorney General’s office. Union members were angry. Everything broke down. The controllers engaged in disruptive work-to-rule tactics.
Government quickly put the controllers on administrative leave. The union’s vice president and operations officer and four air traffic controllers were suspended. The union’s secretary-general, and its treasurer, both just back from vacation were also suspended as was the union’s assistant secretary-general, who had just returned from maternity leave. Letters threatening termination were sent to seven unionists. Only two traffic controllers were allowed to return to work.
The case went to the Supreme Court, which ruled that Government’s actions were unlawful and the traffic controllers should be allowed to return to work. Government appealed the ruling to the Court of Appeal, which overturned the decision, concluding that Government’s actions were neither unlawful nor unreasonable.
In the intervening years, there has been unrest at the airport with unionists being told in 2013 that government would not be able to assist any more unions for the time being because of the state of the economy.
The strike over this Easter weekend, which ruined the plans of many vacationers, became a costly operation for both international and local airlines. It also damaged The Bahamas’ reputation as a reliable destination.
“I’m grateful that the entire industry was safe that day,” said Randy Butler, Sky Bahamas’ chief executive officer. “The air traffic controllers, Government and whoever else is involved needs to sit down and work this thing out. Continuously doing this kind of thing on the holidays is putting a black eye on the industry. Bahamasair might be able to cope with something like that, but we can’t. I think this again just speaks to the fact that there is no strategic planning, no contingency for these type of things that we know can happen during the holidays.”
Mr Butler spent the disastrous weekend having to refund tickets, cancel flights, but, more importantly, trying to repair the loss of goodwill.
Everyone is talking about the chaos caused over the Easter weekend, but according to a non-Bahamian who has a vested interest in this country, he is surprised that the Minister of Transport and Aviation thinks that the Easter weekend is a recent situation at Lynden Pindling Airport. “I know,” he said, “it has been going on for at least three weeks, if not months or more. I fly into Nassau only if I cannot possibly avoid it. It has continued to be a deterrent for some time.” That is why he was not here for the Easter experience.
“Nassau is the absolute worst airport in the world,” he said. “It seems that the air traffic controllers want it to be known for that. They evidently have some gripe with the government and are kidnapping, holding tourists hostage to get what they want.
“This behaviour speaks loudly of what Bahamians think of their most valuable asset, tourism,” he said. “Someone needs to check this behaviour before it is widely known and the Washington Post, Times and Trip Adviser takes note of it. These people either have no idea of the damage they are causing or far worse yet - don’t care. Think first of the safety concerns. Then think about how you feel when you are delayed on a plane for two hours for good reason, such as weather. Now put that into perspective when you find out you were intentionally held hostage needlessly.”
It is important that immediate action be taken to reverse the disastrous and indifferent behaviour at what is supposed to be an international airport . This airport is the first entrance to a tourist-oriented country. It should have the welcome mat out to encourage many repeat visits.