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Flight cancellations roll in as air traffic controllers restive

Published:Monday | January 31, 2022 | 12:09 AMJanet Silvera/Senior Gleaner Writer
The air traffic control tower at Norman Manley International Airport. Apparent industrial action by air traffic controllers at Sangster International Airport caused the cancellation of flights Sunday night.
The air traffic control tower at Norman Manley International Airport. Apparent industrial action by air traffic controllers at Sangster International Airport caused the cancellation of flights Sunday night.

WESTERN BUREAU:

A sickout by air traffic controllers has caused the cancellation of flights by two major airlines serving Jamaica and threatens further disruption to the travel industry if labour restiveness persists.

Virgin Atlantic, which was expected to pick up 173 passengers returning to the Heathrow Airport in the United Kingdom Sunday evening from Montego Bay’s Sangster International, and JetBlue Airways, which was scheduled to arrive from Florida into the tourism capital, were forced to cancel their flights owing to the closure of the airport at 7 p.m.

Flight operations will resume at 7 a.m. today, said an MBJ Airports media statement issued Sunday evening.

The statement disclosed that air traffic control services would be unavailable after 7 p.m. The action by the controllers started on Saturday, but no flights were affected at either Sangster or the Norman Manley International Airport (NMIA), which was also affected.

It is normal for the controllers to work until 11 p.m., at least at the Sangster International, which gets far more traffic that NMIA. “Even one person would be on duty to receive the later flights,” a source, speaking on condition of anonymity, told The Gleaner.

Efforts to get insight into the situation from both the president of the Jamaica Air Traffic Controllers Association (JACTA), Kurt Solomon, and Nari Williams-Singh, director general of the Jamaica Civil Aviation Authority, were unsuccessful up to press time. Both men’s phones went unanswered.

The weekend’s action is believed to have stemmed from the fallout in salary negotiations between the Government and the controllers, who have been restive since last Friday, warning that they could not guarantee normality at the country’s airports.

Radio Jamaica quoted Solomon on Friday saying that the air traffic controllers would step up pressure to get an agreement from the Government.

“We wrote to the director general of the Jamaica Civil Aviation Authority just today, immediately after the meeting at the Ministry of Labour, which ended abruptly, with the ministry departing the meeting quite in an unceremonious manner,” he said.

“We advised the director general of the JCAA that we will be contemplating action over the next few days in pursuit of a resolution of this situation that we have now brewing,” he added.

Solomon said JATCA had no option but to put its members on alert to take action, which he said means they “cannot guarantee normality at any location over this weekend into next week”.

“We will be discussing with our members the most appropriate actions to take because in such a time as this, we were trying assiduously not to let it come to this because we understand the situation and context of the pandemic and the role that is being played by our members,” he said.

An average of 40 flights arrive daily on weekdays during the month of January and more than 50 on Saturdays, mainly from the country’s largest source market, the United States.

Already, several Jamaican hotels have been feeling the impact of the Level 4 designation by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which has warned travellers against visiting Jamaica owing to a spike in COVID-19 cases and crime.

The sickout by air traffic controllers could mean even more trouble for the tourism sector.

Many of the island’s hotels have resorted to cutting rates for February, which is not normal.

February has traditionally been among the heaviest travel periods for tourists to Jamaica.