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Editorial: Don’t call wolf over Jamaica’s airspace

Published:Wednesday | April 20, 2016 | 12:00 AM

We note with equal concern the observation by the people who represent foreign airlines that operate in Jamaica that frequent strikes by the island's air traffic controllers are hurting their business and Jamaica's reputation as a reliable player in the aviation sector, which is costing lots of money.

But the remarks by Yvonne Pearson, the president of the Board of Airline Representatives of Jamaica (BARJ), suggest that there is more about which the country should worry, and seek to resolve, if this issue is not to have a damaging knock-on effect on the rest of the economy, especially the tourism sector. In this regard, we urge new, mature discussions between the Jamaica Air Traffic Controllers Association (JATCA) and the Government.

This matter started as a dispute over pay, but has morphed into a complaint over the quality of the equipment with which air traffic controllers have to work and, ultimately, the safety of the aircraft they manage in Jamaica's airspace.

Like other public-sector employees, Jamaica's air traffic controllers have, in recent years, been subject to a pay restraint regime, as the country grappled with its fiscal crisis. They are now, however, seeking to be paid the same, or near to, their colleagues in other regional jurisdictions.

It seems more than coincidental that the agitation for more pay, including periodic strikes, is congruent with the JATCA's very public statements over the past eight months about the reliability of Jamaica's air-control equipment. Nor is it surprising that last September, the then transport minister, Omar Davies, accused the air traffic controllers' union of blackmail. At the time, there was substantial sympathy on the Opposition benches for the air traffic controllers.

The Government has changed, and so, too, has the interpretation of events. Mike Henry, the new transport minister, has assured Jamaicans, and whoever else was listening, that the island's "airspace is safe" despite the claims by the air traffic controllers that airlines are avoiding Jamaica's airspace because of the country's faulty air traffic equipment. The bulk of the loss of money from airlines traversing Jamaica's airspace, he said, was because of the industrial action by the air traffic controllers.




Mr Henry reiterated his predecessor's argument that new equipment was on order for an update to be completed over the next 21 months.

Mr Henry has now been joined by the BARJ on the effects of these frequent air stoppages on the Jamaican economy, starting first with the effect on airlines, with flight delays, which domino into less time for their planes in the skies, resulting in loss of income and reputational damage to the airlines - and to Jamaica.

"It's a negative impact on our statistics and rating," Ms Pearson said.

On the face of it, no one believes that Jamaica's air traffic control equipment is so bad - or the skill of this country's air traffic control professionals so poor - as to pose a threat to air traffic safety. Indeed, Dr Davies had claimed that no regulatory agency believed Jamaica's airspace to be problematic.

Clearly, Jamaica cannot install upgraded equipment faster than it is delivered, the time it takes for the job to be done, and its ability to pay for the equipment. But wolf calls can be dangerous. Airlines, for instance, might decide it's not worth flying to Jamaica.