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Air traffic controllers: Sticking up Government and the people

Published:Sunday | January 31, 2016 | 1:00 AM

Every now and then, it seems, history throws up a certain type that seizes power only so that they can destroy others and themselves. Jim Jones is now a distant memory for people in the Caribbean. He and his followers committed suicide in the jungles of Guyana.

When David Koresh was finished resisting the FBI's attempt to execute a warrant, he and 79 of his followers were dead. Recently, a pilot took down a plane filled with passengers. In March 2015, Germanwings Flight 9525 co-pilot Andreas Lubitz intentionally crashed the plane, killing all 150 people on board the aircraft.

It is about power, in whose hands it is and to what end it is used.

When Ronald Reagan became president of the USA in the early 1980s, the air traffic controllers issued their demand and, in their way, tried to stick up America. It was not lost on Reagan or on the air traffic controllers how much power they wielded and how much damage they could do.

When they stuck him up, he stared them down, called their bluff and fired 12,000 air traffic controllers. Reagan could do that because the American military has towers near to most major international airports. The military, therefore, was equipped with the requisite skill and experience to manage a busy airspace. The military could fill the breach, causing no disruption, and even more important, no incident or accident in the air. The passengers, therefore, were not placed at risk when the certain high-skilled and vital-service workers became more seized with their power than with their responsibility.

INCAPABLE MILITARY

If the same thing were to happen to Jamaica, our military does not have the requisite experience, though they have the skills. In that case, we would need to rely on Cuba or the USA to supply us with short-term health. The flexing of muscles and the use of brinksmanship are not a position to which those who do arrive at overnight. They come to that point only after pushing the envelope over a period.

Take Jamaica's air traffic controllers at this time. They have not only walked off the job, while staying at work, but have made public certain claims that can only have one effect: that is to scare the daylights out of all of us.

Air traffic controllers work a mandatory 40-hour workweek. What 40 hours per week means for air traffic controller is three days at work and two days at home as reserve. In fact, the 16 hours' paid vacation each week is only altered if someone who is already scheduled to work falls ill. In all other instances, the air traffic controller can choose not to come to work though on call, and that without prejudicing their emoluments.

The 24 hours per week that the air traffic controller actually spends at work is to be divided into two hours at the desk and two hours' rest. Every two hours an air traffic controller works, he is to be rested for a mandatory two hours. In fact, a 40-hour workweek means 12 hours at work. This has benefited generations of air traffic controllers. They have used the enormous amount of leisure time for which the Government pays them a salary to pursue a variety of professional degrees, including law and engineering or generally to educate themselves to the hilt.

The salaries of air traffic controllers are benchmarked to international standards. What is being played out in public as the threat of Armageddon in conversations and allegations about a faulty radar is the ruse being created by the air traffic controllers in order to get more money. The reclassification exercise has offered the air traffic controllers 70 per cent increase on their pay spread over two years, which translates to 35 per cent increase per year.

The air traffic controllers regard the offer as an insult and have begun the brinksmanship and muscle-flexing. The very fact that the procurement process is advanced and contracts have been won means that the equipment at the Jamaica Civil Aviation Authority (JCAA) is near the end of their useful life. The action taken now could have been taken in 2008 or any of the years since then when no action was taken. It is being taken now when the equipment is on order.

What is more to the point is that air traffic controllers are trained and experienced in handling equipment failure. That is why they are the experts; it is their business to navigate the traffic with or without equipment.

There is a subtext to all of this: This throwing down of the gauntlet and putting the safety of passengers and progress of our Jamaican economy at risk, by these air traffic controllers, is not just about money, though that plays a role. It is more so about power.

NO SHIFT CHANGES

As it stands now, the management at the JCAA cannot even successfully change the shift on which a single air traffic controller works. If the management tries to tell one air traffic controller who normally works in the morning to work in the evening, and the controller disagrees, it will not happen.

A supervisor in Montego Bay was once invited to attend a course in Kingston for a week. The air traffic controllers in Montego Bay went on sickout. When asked why, they responded by saying that the supervisor dissed them by not appointing one of them to act for the week while she was in Kingston. She had to cut short the course and return to Montego Bay in order for normality to be resumed. The tail is wagging the dog.

The air traffic controllers have learnt to have their way with the management of the JCAA. Going public, holding press conferences, and offering tours of the towers at the airport is upping the ante. It is about taking the fight to the next level. It is seeing whether the Government will bow to their pressure.

No other trade union has succeeded with the brinksmanship strategy. The nurses have not, and the Police Federation and public teachers have all signed the wage agreement for four per cent and three per cent wage increases.

The air traffic controllers consider themselves to be more powerful than all other unions. They can do damage to passengers, to tourism, to Jamaica's reputation, to the Jamaican economy. They can, like Andreas Lubitz, plunge the entire planeload down the French Alps.

I think the air traffic controllers have miscalculated. I do not expect Omar Davies to bow to them. I do not think the air traffic controllers remember the Battle of Dunkirk. The Germans were about to overrun the Channel and England was about to fall. Dunkirk was the last stand.

If it fell, all Europe/the Allied Forces would have fallen. Then they sent a telegram with the words "But if Not (taken from the words of the three Hebrew boys in Daniel 3). And the rest, as they say, is history.

- Garnett Roper is president of the Jamaica Theological Seminary and chairman of the Jamaica Urban Transit Company. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.