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.
By Netani Rika
PILOTS operating out of Fiji’s international airports have been forced to take on additional work which compromises aircraft safety after air traffic controllers quit in protest over salaries and conditions.
But operators and regulators continue to claim that operations at Nadi and Nausori International Airports remain safe.
This despite pilots needing to supervise the distances between aircraft and obstacles on the ground and up to 10 miles from the airfield after temporary operational procedures were introduced.
Labour Minister, Praveen Bala, has declared the strike illegal, forcing workers to seek advice from the Fiji Public Service Association and its leader, Rajeshwar Singh.
Bala failed to meet workers on Thursday, despite three assurances that he would hold talks with them.
The workers want higher salaries from Fiji Airports Limited which has paid $45 million in dividends in 2017 and 2018.
Fiji Airports Executive Chairman, Faiz Khan said the company had paid $14 million to the government in five years.
“We are extremely concerned that there appears to be a deliberate obfuscation that operations are normal,’’ the workers said in a statement today.
“’Over the past few days, Fiji Airports Limited, have communicated that air traffic management operations are normal. Fiji Airways Limited and Fiji Link have stated that flight safety schedules have been maintained and that there have been no disruptions to their schedule.’’
But with the number of officers on duty at control towers at Nadi and Nausori, the striking workers argue that safety has been compromised.
There are two officers at the Nadi Air Traffic Management Centre, two in the control tower and one on duty at Nausori.
The normal daily complement is 10 at the Nadi ATM Centre, seven in the tower and three at Nausori according to national and international requirements.
“We are at a loss as to how FAL, and by extension CAAF, continue to state that operations are normal and safe,” the workers’ statement said.
Fiji Airports Limited and the Civil Aviation Authority have grounded flying school aircraft and restricted other general movement of aircraft to manage the Air Traffic Control workload at airports.
And instead of the normal services provided by air traffic controllers, Fiji Airports provides a lower level of service known as Traffic Information and Broadcast Advisory (TIBA).
The TIBA forces pilots to take on the responsibility for obstacles in the air up to 10 miles from the airfield and to separate themselves from each other on the ground while landing and taking off.
These procedures are usually activated in areas where there is very light traffic such as helicopters, float planes and other small aircraft.
Workers said the TIBA was not applicable in moderate to heavy workload areas such as Nadi and Nausori Airport where international aircraft operated and there was a high workload in cockpits.
“’FAL would rather the issue of workload is transferred to pilots of international and domestic turboprop and jet aircraft rather than try to resolve its internal issues,’’ the workers said in a statement.
Workers met Khan three times this week to address their grievances, but talks were abandoned, and no agreement was reached.
The workers have – since 2016 – sought higher pay and better working conditions. Their last pay rise was a five per cent increase approved in 2016 and paid in 2017.
Workers have described the increase as “not something we asked for” and an “attempt to stop air traffic controllers from leaving for greener pastures’’.
In a news conference they called in Suva last Thursday, three team leaders of the protesting air traffic controlers say they know of eight to ten of their officers who have applied for work overseas.
They also say that persistent rumours are that Fiji Airports want to hire controllers from New Zealand to come and manage Fiji’s air traffic space.
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.