“THANK God for Ms Hanna Martin and the PLP government. The Tribune takes credit why?”
Anyone who is a regular reader of Tribune242 will immediately recognise this comment as coming from none other than staunch PLP supporter “Birdie Strachan”. “Birdie”, we know not whether our feathered friend be a he or a she as some who exchange comments refer to “Birdie” as a “she”, while others assume our bird is a “he”.
Anyway, whoever he/she is, they bring great mirth to the 242 site as other writers enjoy picking his/her feathers and sending him packing. However, Birdie is made of sterner stuff, no matter how much he is ridiculed, he holds his ground, giving as good and he gets.
On this occasion, “Birdie” was commenting on The Tribune’s lead story of Thursday, May 17, when Tourism Minister Dionisio D’Aguilar announced that at last foreign aircraft will pay a fee to fly over The Bahamas. However, the paragraph that ruffled Birdie’s feathers was the paragraph that said:
“In a long-running campaign, The Tribune has repeatedly warned we should be like the vast majority of countries around the world who generate significant sums for their treasuries by charging overflight fees.”
Of course, former Transport Minister Glenys Hanna Martin (PLP) also dismissed these reports as “fake news” and “bogus”.
It is true Mrs Hanna Martin (PLP) had succeeded in negotiations with the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in cancelling the ridiculous situation in which Bahamian carriers were being charged to fly through their own airspace. It was estimated that over a three-year period the cancellation of these charges would save Bahamasair about $1m.
Sky Bahamas chief executive Randy Butler said that Bahamian airlines have been annually paying the FAA more than $100,000 in fees to fly over The Bahamas — their own country.
The fact that at long last Bahamian pilots could now fly in their own airspace without charge was a limited victory won by those with limited vision. Mrs Hanna-Martin saw The Bahamas’ airline future as being able within ten years to build its own complex facilities to manage its own airspace. For this period, the FAA would remain in charge. After that, The Bahamas would have done the impossible. It would have built its own control centre, trained its own traffic controllers and managed its own air space — something that far richer countries shunned. But not so the little Bahamas. Its leaders did not understand that they did not lose control of their sovereign rights by having a more expert entity administer those rights and pay The Bahamas what was its due in overflight fees by foreign carriers. Obviously the concept was too vast for them to grasp.
In the meantime, Capt Randy Butler kept knocking at The Tribune’s door to try to publicise the futility and unfairness suffered by Bahamian pilots as they tried to operate their businesses in their own country.
Eventually, he met up with a member of The Tribune staff who most often than not thinks “outside of the box”. Robert Carron became interested in Capt Butler’s complaint. Robert’s research began. Using “Freedom of Information”, he discovered the overflight revenues of other nations and the formula used to justify such charges. His investigations took him from country to country around the world – if his questions did not get coherent answers by email, he telephoned the man in charge until eventually the answers started to make sense — it opened new horizons, new possibilities for The Bahamas.
For example, Robert discovered that while a British colony The Bahamas had actually been charging 15 shillings for those flying in our sovereign airspace. This token alone maintained sovereignty. Nothing to get excited about in those days because “Pappy” Chalk’s little seaplane operating during Prohibition days to ferry bootleggers, their customers and even Customs agents to Bimini was the only aircraft flying in Bahamian airspace. Chalk’s was founded in 1919. “Pappy” was also known for taking anyone of note, from American writer Ernest Hemingway to mobster Al Capone to Bimini. Pappy was soon followed by Pan American Airlines seaplanes. And so there was not sufficient traffic in those days to expect more than pennies to be falling from heaven. But not so today.
As years passed and air traffic over The Bahamas grew, the PLP government, under Sir Lynden Pindling, agreed to the succession of the FAA as the air traffic control authority, which had been delegated to the US at the IACO special meeting in Cuba in 1952. For 33 consecutive year,s the PLP reaffirmed this authority, while failing to re-institute any over-flight fees for The Bahamas similar to that being done by 180 other nations around the world. The FAA kept every penny of the fees it charged since 2006.
It was interesting what Robert discovered in discussions “off the record” about The Bahamas’ attitude to the problem — an attitude that one can only attribute to the Bahamian negotiators’ lack of understanding of the complex issues. However, in a statement on the record in 2006 the Air Traffic Control Reform Newsletter explained why the US had assumed control of The Bahamas’ airspace. It was done, said the Newsletter, “without protest from the Bahamas government or the Ministry of Aviation and Transport”. Unfortunately Bahamian aircraft had been caught in the zone change and were then charged for passing through their own air space. This air space now came under the designation of Miami Ocean East (ZMA) and was considered a part of the US’s enroute airspace. It is this that while Aviation Minister Mrs Hanna Martin had negotiated that Bahamian aircraft could fly through their own airspace free of charge, she failed to grasp the larger picture, which she hoped to have under this country’s control in ten years’ time. In the meantime, the Bahamas would still get no overflight fees, although hundreds of foreign aircraft would continue to fly daily through our air space. All fees – in the millions – would be paid to the FAA.
However, Robert was given an International Organisation’s (CAO) document in which it was “regretted that while the FAA presented The Bahamas government with an ‘Air Navigation Service Provider Proposal in 2006… no official dialogue commenced until a meeting at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was convened in March 26th 2014” — eight years later. Note these statements and observations on the performance of Mrs Hanna-Martin’s Ministry were made, not by The Tribune, but by the ICAO and FAA. In all this time the Bahamas could have been getting its fair share of the fees being charged aircraft for flying over Miami Ocean East (ZMA), part of which The Bahamas owns.
As a result between between 2012 and 2016 the FAA collected $591m in overflight fees. The Bahamas got nothing. From 2009 through the fiscal year 2016 the FAA billed almost $800m - again The Bahamas got nothing and on Mrs Hanna Martin’s plan would have to wait another ten years in the hope that our now bankrupt treasury would have built and staffed our own facilities.
In the meantime, The Bahamas remained one of “20 small and relatively poor countries” in the world that didn’t charge for ATC services. Larger countries that could afford their own facilities have wisely come together to have their airspace managed by one entity. For example EuroControl, founded in 1960, has 41 member nations and is headquartered in Brussels, Belgium. It employs about 2,000 people and operates with an annual budget in excess of half a billion Euros. Each member nation is paid millions as its share of the collected fees.
At the end of his investigation Robert obtained a real-time colour satellite map that showed so many flights criss-crossing The Bahamas that the islands could not be seen. He outlined the revenue sharing possibilities. His project was published in The Tribune. Some laughed it to scorn — it was so simple it seemed impossible. However, more sober heads took it seriously.
A meeting was held in Nassau early last month when FAA representatives flew in to meet with Tourism Minister Dionisio D’Aguilar. At the end of the meeting, Mr D’Aguilar announced The Bahamas government had finally given the go-ahead to charge foreign aircraft for flying through our air space. “The FAA,” said Mr D’Aguilar, “were extremely supportive, understood perfectly what we were attempting to do and were very helpful.” In fact, from what Robert learned in his extensive research is the FAA was always very supportive and could not understand that over the years they had been dealing with Bahamian governments that did not grasp the basic principle that sovereignty is not lost, but management of that sovereignty can be delegated with a handsome profit.
At last the penny had dropped in the minds of an island people as new vistas can now be seen to be opening on the horizon. No longer will the Bahamas be listed as one of the “small and relatively poor countries” of the world yet to understand the advantage of global cooperation.
And, yes, “Birdie”, it was The Tribune’s persistence that broke through the darkness.