IT WAS announced by government last week that at long last Bahamian aircraft will no longer have to pay the US Federal Aviation Administration overflight fees to cross its own islands.
Our group of islands stretch the length of the area designated as Miami Oceanic east. This area is under the control of the FAA, which collects lucrative fees from any aircraft flying through it, including our own.
Suddenly, after years of inaction, The Bahamas has just awakened to the realisation that it has for many years been out of step with the rest of the world.
Under international law, countries require airlines and other aircraft to pay a fee for the right to fly over their airspace. The administration of those rights for The Bahamas has always been performed by the FAA, meaning Bahamasair and other Bahamian-owned carriers also have had to pay the US for the right to fly over their own country, Tribune Business reported last week.
Capt Randy Butler, Sky Bahamas’ president and chief operating officer, was delighted to hear the news. To him it means an annual savings of $100,000, which he paid to US regulators to fly in Bahamian airspace.
For The Bahamas, it has meant years of lost revenue that could have been used for the upgrade of all of our airports throughout the islands. It also means that the extra fee towards these expenses can now be removed from passengers’ airline tickets. Cheaper fares usually translate into more passengers, resulting in more revenue for the country and its airports. It is estimated that in the space of a year at least 511,000 planes pass through our sovereign airspace on their way to and from the Caribbean, Latin America, Europe and mainland USA.
But why has it taken so long for government to awaken to this lost opportunity?
According to documents obtained by The Tribune, over the past five years the FAA has been unable to enter into negotiations to conclude a bilateral revenue share agreement with the Ministry of Aviation and Transportation. Apparently, a proposal was submitted to government as far back as 2004.
And “in 2006, FAA presented Air Navigation Service Provider Proposal to the Bahamas, which provided for the United States to continue to provide Air Traffic Services for the upper airspace; the Government of the Bahamas to reimburse the FAA out of user fees collected by designated third party. Since then official dialogue commenced on the 26th March, 2014 at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Nassau with the hopes of finally formalizing an agreement between both ICAO member states.
“Under the Convention on International Civil Aviation (the Chicago Convention), each State has the complete and exclusive sovereignty over the airspace above the territory. While national sovereignty cannot be delegated, the responsibility for the provision of air traffic services can be delegated. The Assembly Resolution A37-15 specifies that a state which delegates to another State the responsibility for providing air traffic services within airspace over its territory does so without derogation of its sovereignty.”
It is not only important that The Bahamas has now negotiated the rights of our own aircraft to fly over our airspace without charge, but that it should receive a reasonable fee from all the other airlines using our airspace. In, other words, if these fees are collected by the FAA a certain portion should be returned to TBahamas.
When Prime Minister Christie said that “considerable progress” is now being made on proposed arrangements for the management of this nation’s airspace, including plans to approach the International Civil Aviation Organisation for formal recognition of an expanded Bahamian Flight Information Region (FIR), “which would have economic benefits to the Bahamas and would be in the mutual interest of both countries with respect to aviation safety and security” surely he did not plan for the tiny Bahama to build a miniature Miami Air Traffic Control centre.
Such a thought would be a pipe dream, because not only would the cost be prohibitive, but Miami Air Traffic Control Centre does the job for us. How could we ever maintain such a centre when we cannot even keep our electrical power on is a mystery. Mr Christie even had reason to complain that the constant disruption in energy services had brought the government embarrassment as it took place the day before the opening ceremony of an international civil aviation conference.
To do the job that it does and cover the vast area that it controls, Miami Control Centre employs 356 highly trained personnel. In 2008, the average daily traffic count was 6,580 aircraft. The record breaking flight day was on January 2, 2005 when the controllers had to control 11,095 flights.
“Miami Centre is divided into four areas of operation with six areas of specialisation, and operates 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It controls approximately 2.95 million cubic miles of airspace and shares boundaries with Houston Centre, Jacksonville Centre, New York Centre, San Juan CERAT, Turks & Caicos, the Bahamas, the Dominica Republic, Haiti and Cuba.”
Why would The Bahamas even contemplate trying to duplicate a system that takes care of it all? Another advantage would be that if anything goes wrong all liability would be borne by the US centre. Such liability would be so financially destructive that it would sink our country below our shallow seas.
It would be wise if government upgraded and maintained to first world standards what we now have.