Some months ago there was a sick-out staged by the air traffic control personnel that falls under the Department of Civil Aviation. The reasons behind that action taken by the men and women who work in that unit were several, including, the extended working hours, the condition of the equipment and the shortage of personnel. Lindsay Garbutt is the Director of Civil Aviation while Marsha Hinkson is the Chief Air Traffic Control Operator. They spoke to us on not only on the steps they have taken to address the concerns of the workers but also the rigorous training it takes to be an air traffic control personnel.
“Certainly before I came to work here I understood, very vaguely what was the responsibility of an air traffic controller. Believe me, since I’ve worked here I have learnt to appreciate the qualities that goes into becoming a good air traffic controller. Like I have said before I could go out there and hire ten people with a doctorate degree right now and it would still take me three years to make them into air traffic controllers. It is very complex, it is time consuming, it is very costly; there is a lot of training that takes place and it goes by level so it’s not like if I have a construction problem and I get three extra mixers and I hire twelve other people and I move forward, this is something that takes time and so we are building them one by one or should I say twelve by twelve trying to get them to where they can become air traffic controllers and there are different levels. I mean, we hire them at one level and there are three more levels they have to move up before they are really qualified air traffic controllers. There are twelve totally qualified, six others that have worked here for a few years and are in the process of being qualified. We took in an intake of six last year, after taking them through the program only two of them have survived the rigorous testing process. So we have taken on twelve new ones but at the end of it we may end up with six or eight out of that twelve then you have to go back to the drawing board. So like I said creating an air traffic controller is not easy but we recognize our essentiallity and we are working on it. Because it’s a seven day a week job we have tried to rotate vacation as much as possible, we have taken certain measures particularly during the lower part of the season between March and September so we can give those people who most need the vacation some time off. It is going to take another two years at least before we are anywhere close to where we want to be. Those air traffic controllers that are here , those twelve have been really making sacrifices for a long time trying to keep it going and you know there is something I want to mention that I think is important, Belize is very unique in terms of air traffic control because I speak to air traffic controllers in other places but in most of the other air ports they are dealing only with big commercial traffic. Here you are dealing with commercial traffic and local traffic so it’s a real unique work that the air traffic controllers are doing and we are trying our best to see how we can recognize that. You have to realize to that some of the other pressures include not only vacation and compensation but actually training because every other year you have to send them from two to four weeks or more training. We have had people from March to now we have had people almost constantly on training some of them took over eleven weeks in certain cases so I’m saying that puts a little more additional pressure but their response and willingness to work is commendable.
Garbutt went on to speak about the equipment, saying that some statements made during the sick-out were misconstrued. He also spoke on the support they have gotten from the Government of Belize in meeting some of the upgrades including assistance with salaries.
“I think there was some misconception in the bout of equipment, not everything that was said we agreed with. We have always tried to provide adequate equipment. Like I mentioned at that time the entire Central America under COCESNA are looking at changing equipment, because with technology you have to change equipment over time. I think sometime between now and the end of 2016 we are going to significantly change our equipment. Some of the concerns like radios and stuff like that we addressed immediately and we have brought those in. So, those equipment that we could have addressed immediately, we did and when I say immediately I am talking four months because many of those things you have to order from the company and they have to make it but I think basically we have addressed those issues of equipment as much as we can but it is an ongoing process. Over the last year and half we have brought in sixteen people in addition to the six BDF so we are talking about twenty two people. So, I think they have made their contribution, the Ministry of Public Service and CEO McNab their support has been overwhelming in terms of working with us to deal with upgrading, looking at salary scales and stuff like that and addressing those issues. So I think government has done everything that it can, unfortunately it can’t create instant air traffic controllers.”
There are an estimated forty air traffic personnel including those from the Belize Defense Force.