Checking Nigeria’s Air Traffic Controllers’ Strikes

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Air Traffic Controllers, under the auspices of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) recently withdrew their services and paralysed flight operations at the nation’s airports as they embarked on a six-hour warning strike.

The reason for embarking on the strike was to press home their demand for improved welfare, a demand they have been making since the past years. They equally alleged that another reason for the strike was the epileptic air navigation equipment for effective performance.

The strike had adverse effect on the nation’s economy because it disrupted many Nigerians from attending critical private, social and business meetings as movement of people were hampered.

The strike gave rise to delays, prompting some airlines to cancel flights to some destinations, resulting in loss of millions of naira while the action lasted.

It took the intervention of the management of the Nigerian Airspace Management Agency (NAMA), who sent senior officials of the agency to the towers to control flight movement as to curb the adverse consequences of the strike.

Air Traffic Controllers (ATCS) have threatened to go on strike three times within this year, insisting that the management of NAMA must abide by the agreement it reached with the workers to improve their welfare last year. The six hours warning strike was to herald a total industrial action.

NATCA issued a statement that, “it was against the background of no action plan and political will to implement the agreements earlier entered into with the association and others that necessitated the corresponding action by the Air Traffic Controllers.

Despite calling off the planned indefinite strike by the workers, it is expected that the management would address the issues raised by the Air Controllers without allowing them the opportunity to invoke the industrial action that would put the country at the receiving end.

In the case of poor equipment, the air controllers cited incessant failure of air navigation facilities at airports nationwide leading to increase in work load of air traffic controllers and pilots.

A statement by NATCA and signed by its General Secretary, Mr Olawole Banji, said it was disheartening that in the last few months the communication, Navigation and Surveillance/Air Traffic Management (CNS/ATM) equipment has been epileptic.

Although the ATCS said that some employees in the agency have spent so much time and energy they would have expended in making facilities function optimally to feed the public with falsehoods as to the semi-ability of the (NS/ATM equipment to cover their ineptitude.

The statement said, “we can, however, say categorically that it is either the personnel responsible for the equipment are incompetent or the incessant failures are as a result of acts of sabortage on their part.

Experts in the aviation industry said because of the special work the controllers are doing, they deserve what they are asking for in the emoluments but lamented that the controllers have acquired the attitude of threatening to shut down the airspace unless their demands were met at the slightest provocation.

An aviation expert who does not want his name in print said when the Associated Aviation Charter flight crashed on take-off at the Murtala Muhammadi International Airport, Lagos, on October 3, 2013, the controllers cashed-in on the opportunity of the tragic incident to issue a statement, condemning the Total Radar Coverage of Nigeria (TRACON) and claimed that the landing aids were not working despite the fact that the crash was caused by pilot error.

Again, there is this belief among air controllers that as far as the airspace management is concerned, they should have a pride of place. Part of their latest conditions is that every airport should be manned by a Traffic Controller.

But when they do this, they pitch themselves against engineers who ensure that their working equipment is functional without which the controllers cannot function.

Infact, one of the major challenges facing NAMA is the antagonism or rivalry between the engineers and the controllers. Most times when the controllers condemn their working equipment they want to convey the message that the engineers are not doing their work effectively.

The engineers on their part believe that without their input, there would have been no equipment to work with by the controllers. However, in the cat-and –dog relationship between the two professional bodies it is NAMA, as an agency, that loses.

The Management of NAMA, according to the General Manager, Public Affairs, Mr Olajumoke Adetona, said the agency had been consulting with the air traffic controllers and that the management has approved the controllers demand. He also said that the agency did not recognize any staff as superior to the other.

Nevertheless, NAMA must find a way of addressing the rivalry between the two professional bodies to have a smooth operation.

To achieve that they need to embark on sensitization of their workforce and reorientate them to be the best they can be without in fighting with other professional bodies.

NAMA should ensure that workers’ entitlements are paid as at when due to give them a sense of belonging while motivational incentives should be adopted such as best monthly worker and yearly best staff ceremony for the different categories of workers.

The scenario that gave room for such national embarrassment can be avoided if the authorities adopt a proactive approach to issues of staff welfare.

Therefore, the ministry of aviation should nip such circumstances in the bud before it escalates into full blown disagreement to warrant an industrial dispute.

The authorities should equally utilize the early warning signals for possible intervention before it degenerates to a situation where airline operations would not only be affected but the economy with the consequent battering of the country’s image abroad.