By Samisoni Pareti
Fiji Airports Limited (AFL) says safety is their paramount consideration as a walkout by majority of their air traffic controllers enters its eighth day today.
A spokesman for FAL also denies media reports that the remaining controllers who did not leave their work stations are being made to work non-stop for 96 hours.
“Fiji Airports has put in place an approved procedure that significantly reduces the workload and traffic congestion in our airspace,” Fiji Airports said in a statement. “To give you a perspective there are up to 130 circuit training flights in a day in the Nadi airspace – these have been restricted in deference to safety.
“There are currently on average 30 international flight movements (15 in and 15 out), and 50 domestic flight movements (25 in and out) in a day – these are our main priority,” the statement added.
The company noted that since labour minister Praveen Bala declared the walkout unlawful last Wednesday, “couple of our controllers” have returned to work on Friday. “Many others have advised that they will return.”
FAL however could not give the actual number of controllers that are back at work.
Up to last week, air traffic controllers claimed Fiji’s air space navigation including the control towers at both Nadi and Nausori (near the capital Suva) international airports were manned by only 5 personnel.
The normal daily complement they say is ten at the Nadi Air Traffic Management (ATM) Centre, seven in the Nadi tower and three at Nausori.
The impasse flared at 6am on Monday last week when air traffic control officers did not turn up to work to push for their demands for pay increases. They claimed pay negotiations with FAL have failed. Three additional meetings last week also failed to resolve the impasse.
“We categorically state that there were no pending grievances or log of claims being pursued by the controllers when many went on strike starting Monday 18 March. FPSA has made a media statement that a similar dispute is with the Employment Minister through the Arbitration Court – that too is incorrect. FPSA has not raised any specific issues regarding the pay of the controllers with Fiji Airports,” FAL said in their statement.
It also argued that over the last five years, air traffic controllers earned on average 61% more in gross pay, and 43% less workload in overtime. Reduction in workload it says comes from increasing staffing numbers by 31% in the same period.
Gross pay rises FAL added were in the form of allowance increases in 2014, 2015 and 2017, and through promotions.
“Fiji Airports has advised all controllers that it is not opposed to a pay rise. Presently a pay rise was under contemplation with 2 internal papers already under discussion.
“However, Fiji Airports was opposed to the manner in which a pay rise was being demanded under a threat.”
FAL urges controllers who it says “remain on coordinated leave” to return to work, warning that failing to do so will force the company to issue them with disciplinary letters.
Islands Business can now confirm that majority of the country’s air traffic controllers in both of Fiji’s international airports have not been reporting to work since 6am on Monday this week.
“Over the last 48 hours since 6am Monday, 18th March 2019, approximately 80% of the air traffic control officers have individually taken various forms of leave entitlement,” states a media release that was sent to the magazine tonight.
“Services are currently being provided by 5 ATC [Air Traffic Control] officers who have worked continuously for the past 48 hours out of the normal daily compliment of 17 officers for Nadi Centre, Nadi Tower and Nausori Tower.”
Islands Business was also able to speak to one of the 80 per cent of ATC officers that are “on leave,” who said that they have met three times with senior managers of Fiji Airports Limited led by its executive chairman Faiz Khan since yesterday.
“Based on emails received from FAL management this afternoon, progressive salary based on promotion and career progression are being deliberately misrepresented by FAL management as a means to demonstrate that massive pay increases have been effected, while in reality this is not the case,” the air traffic control officers said in their statement.
“This issue remains unresolved at the moment and we are hoping that an amicable resolution is achieved at the earliest.”
No mention has been made about the safety of air travel with the alleged walkout by controllers in Nadi and Nausori airports.
Islands Business has sent questions to Fiji Airports Limited, which they have yet to respond to.