For several hours on Saturday, Belize’s only major international airport, the Philip Goldson International Airport at Ladyville, was paralyzed by inaction due to a decision taken by employees working in the air traffic control department to report sick. These employees’ service are considered essential under law and their options to protest working conditions through industrial action are severely limited. But their list of complaints has grown steadily and the result on Saturday was inconvenience for quite a few groups of stranded travellers.
We will have their stories later, but first, around midday, representatives of the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Civil Aviation hosted the press to a briefing which essentially reported that the situation was back under control.
According to the Ministry’s Director for Civil Aviation Lindsay Garbutt, just a few flights were ultimately affected.
“The PGIA was scheduled to open for service at 6 a.m. this morning. At 6:10 we were advised that all the Air Traffic Controllers scheduled to work the 6 a.m. to 12 p.m. shift had reported in sick. We are presently working to address this situation.
The airlines have been advised of this situation. We have one controller coming in, and should have limited services restored shortly.”
According to Lindsay Garbutt, the Ministry has been meeting regularly with the employees and had already begun to address some of their critical issues, such as a lack of trained and qualified staff, delayed salary adjustment and increments, replacements for equipment and uniforms, and so on.
Despite the surprise of Saturday’s events, he says, those efforts will continue.
“I have never worked in any place in management where there is not continued discussion between management and staff as to how best to address staff concerns.
Issues have come up. We have tried to address them as they come. We have spent a significant amount of money over the last two years, training Air Traffic Controllers. We recently hired six new Traffic Controllers, because we know we have less traffic controllers than what we want to have. So we have six new ones, and we’re looking at bringing on six new ones sometime in April.
So we’re trying to address the situation at alleviate. We also have taken other measures to try to make sure that people get their vacation as they need it. But these are essential workers, and the department certainly looks at this as a very grave matter, because the country of Belize is being affected by this action.
The fact that we have not received anything or any specific demand is of concern.”
Speaking about the impact of Saturday’s sick-out on flights into and out of Belize and the overall tourism product, Ministry CEO Tracey Taegar-Panton said that their priority was to resume activity as quickly and safely as possible, and she expects no lasting damage.
“As the Director said, we have had several meetings with the Air Traffic Control Unit. Certainly, I have personally been involved in those meetings. Whatever concerns they have brought to the table, we have tried to address as best as we can. There was certainly no indication to me and to the office that there were any additional concerns that were not in the process of being addressed. So, I am myself are blindsided by this event. It’s certainly very unfortunate.
We are doing everything we can to ensure that flights safely land and safely leave from Belize. That is the optimum concern, safety, at this time. We would not take any actions that would jeopardize the safety of our visitors.
We have been in touch with our PR Agency in the U.S., Olson. They’re very much monitoring the situation for us. I think that the fact that we moved quickly to get the matter resolved in a short period of time should not cause any negative press, that would have any lasting impact on our tourism sector.”
The Ministry has issued a formal apology to those affected. The controllers are not affiliated with any union although as public officers they would qualify to be members of the Public Service Union (PSU), and have met with them in the past.