KINGSTON, Jamaica – The safety of air travel over Jamaica is reportedly being compromised as there are too few suitably qualified air traffic controllers operating at the island’s two major airports.
Howard Greaves, the president of the Air Traffic Controllers Association yesterday warned that “the flying public is at risk and the government needs to take responsibility.”
He said air traffic controllers were being pressured to work extremely long hours and denied vacation leave, factors that could impair their ability to process and monitor air traffic information on airlines entering, leaving and passing over Jamaica’s air space, according to the Jamaica Gleaner.
“When you have persons who are exhausted because they are working double shifts and can’t get any (vacation) leave it is going to cause a problem. The worst case scenario is (that) it could cause an accident… because a controller’s job is based on his decision in being able to monitor the traffic in terms of the radar and if he is exhausted then that can lead to some sort of error,” he explained.
Earl Richards, president of the Airports Authority of Jamaica, said while he was not aware of the inadequate staffing situation, noted that the situation was cause for concern. He said the air traffic controllers’ function was not only limited to air traffic entering and exiting the country, but also those passing over local air space in transit to other destinations.
Mr. Greaves contended that such working conditions were in breach of air safety and civil aviation regulations. Like airline pilots, he said, air safety and civil aviation regulations dictate that personnel such as air traffic controllers must not work beyond certain hours.
The ATCA and the Government have been entangled in a year-long dispute over salary increases. The ATCA has been pressing for a 20-30 per cent increase to bring members salaries in line with flight safety inspectors.
But the government has refused, claiming that it would affect the existing Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to control the public sector wage bill. A meeting has been scheduled for today with the ATCA and the Minister of Finance to resume negotiations.
Mr. Greaves said he was expecting an improvement in the Government’s offer.
He said the situation has forced at least five members to leave the job so far. As a consequence, he said personnel were being pulled from active air traffic control duties and placed into other areas, including supervisors. He noted that one member was recently pulled from vacation leave due to the shortage. “The staffing situation is a repercussion of the prolonged period of negotiation. Because of the low salaries people (air traffic controllers) are looking for more lucrative jobs and people are migrating.”
Since last week, the Jamaica Civil Aviation Authority has been actively seeking new recruits through adverstisements in the press. However, Mr. Greaves said that would not solve the immediate shortage as it would take at least another year before training is completed for recruits at the entry level and four to five years for those at the supervisory level.