Air traffic controllers in the Maldives say they are building up to a full work stoppage over ongoing grievances and safety concerns left unaddressed by the current government.
Such strikes could lead to delays and disruption of flights to the luxury tourism destination, that welcomes almost one million tourists a year.
Several controllers responsible for organising the strike explained to Minivan News that they have been raising safety concerns with all relevant government authorities following the restructuring of the state-owned Maldives Airports Company Limited (MACL). Despite countless promises, no action had been taken, they said.
“For the last six months we’ve been ‘going by the book’, following all the procedures which causes a lot of delays. In the aviation industry that is considered a mild strike,” the air traffic controllers explained.
The air traffic controllers are now “building towards a full strike”, and many are even now calling in sick to work, the sources said.
A full strike would involve notifying all the relevant regional and international agencies, airlines, and all relevant government agencies in the Maldives, because no planes will be able to land except for hospital and humanitarian aircraft.
“This strike affects everyone, sea planes as well. Whatever happens at Ibrahim Nasir International Airport (INIA) will cause delays at the domestic airports as well,” they added.
Six air traffic controllers should be on duty at all times, three in the control tower and three in area control, the sources said.
“Last night only two people showed up to work,” they confirmed.
“The [MACL] management and Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF) had to run the system last night,” the air traffic controllers claimed. “Management is totally stressed.”
“This morning only one person was working area control, so management has had to fill in and today at 1:00pm nobody one went into work,” the controllers stated.
As a result, MACL management is also trying to close the area control centre and combine all operations in the control tower, the sources said.
“A pilot from a domestic carrier called me today to say he’s hesitant to fly because the guy currently in the tower doesn’t know what he’s doing – it’s a big safety issue,” one of the controllers alleged.
Ground staff at Kaadedhdhoo domestic airport in Gaaf Dhaal Atoll told Minivan News that since strike activity began many domestic flights had been delayed “three or four hours” while a number of international flights coming into Male’ “have been diverted to Colombo”.
CEO of the Maldives Airports Corporation Limited (MACL), Ibrahim ‘Bandhu’ Saleem, told Minivan News no such strikes were occurring.
“As far as I’m concerned there is no strike – you are wrong,” said Saleem.
He explained that there have been no flight cancellations or delays at INIA and that “only Male’ international [airport], not domestic airports, are under my control.”
While Saleem insisted there is no strike, he noted “there are contingency plans in place [in the event of a strike].” He declined to answer further questions.
The air traffic controllers told Minivan News that while they were not aware of flights being cancelled as of early this afternoon, a flight from Dharavandhoo airport in Baa Atoll was one-and-a-half hours delayed this morning “because INIA couldn’t handle the air traffic.”
Safety and standards
The air traffic controllers claimed strike action was supported by 75 controllers – over 95 percent of the country’s qualified staff. They are demanding the reinstatement of a professional grading system, adherence to International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), and the holding of the presidential run-off election that remains suspended by the Supreme Court.
“This was not a political issue,” they emphasised. “But now because we’ve lost trust in and cannot negotiate with the current government, [the strike has taken a political direction],” the air traffic controller sources told Minivan News.
“We were counting on a new election and government so we could bring our problems to them. If there’s no election our grievances will be exacerbated. [Now] we don’t know when we’ll be able to vote and elect a new government,” the sources continued.
The controllers repeatedly emphasised that the Maldivian Air Traffic Controllers Association (MATCA) was not involved [in organising the strike], “because they don’t want this to appear a politically motivated thing.”
Concerns and demands
The air traffic controllers said staff were not getting proper breaks, domestic airports are understaffed, the radar system – installed at INIA in 2008 – does not meet ICAO standards, and the professional grading system for controllers had been abolished.
“Everyone got knocked down to the same grade one position, there have been no promotions or pay raises in four years,” the sources explained.
The professional grading system ranks experience level and qualifications, with four levels: 1) basic air traffic, 2) aerodrome (tower) controller, 3) approach controller, and 4) area controller. While the same task is performed at each level, the airspace area each controller is responsible for increases.
“If air traffic controllers are continuously stressed out they might get into trouble by losing a picture [on radar],” the sources warned. “More fatigue means more mistakes, but we can’t makes mistakes is this job.”
The sources said MACL staff from Male’ are sent to work the domestic airports. However, the majority of domestic airports are understaffed, with only one or two air traffic controllers. At least three people should be running the control tower at any given time, the sources explained.
“Where there is only one person working the tower – like in Forvumulah’s airport – that individual has to stay awake. He only gets four hours of sleep a day and has to work 30 days continuously without a day off,” they continued.
“If you are the only person on duty you cannot leave the room, it’s a safety issue,” the controllers explained.
Thimarafushi airport in Thaa Atoll has no air traffic controller, however the Civil Aviation Authority gave authorisation for the airport to operate anyway, the sources alleged.
“That’s totally fine by us, even in the US there is uncontrolled airspace. It’s not a big issue as long as the pilots feel that they can land and take off,” the sources added.
“No one to trust” in government
“The government is trying to say everything is running smoothly, while trying to buy us out,” alleged the air traffic controllers. “We also gave an interview to Haveeru yesterday but they nothing has been posted about it.”
“Minister Adheeb called us today asking us if we were on strike. He’s pretending he didn’t know that our concerns hadn’t been addressed, even though we met with him earlier this year,” the sources noted.
“Three supervisors – of eight total – went to the MACL Managing Director’s meeting today. He’s asking them to talk to us to bring us back to work,” the sources continued.
“We are professionals and don’t want to create chaos in the Maldives, but with the current situation there is no one to talk to,” they explained. “We’ve tried to do it in a democratic way and did every single thing [to resolve our grievances]. We’ve exhausted all resources. There is no one to trust,” they added.
“We have been trying to raise these problems – again – since 7 February 2012 with the current government run by [President Mohamed] Waheed, [Jumhooree Party Presidential Candidate and MP] Gasim [Ibrahim], and [Progressive Party of the Maldives Presidential Candidate and MP Abdulla] Yameen,” the sources continued. “They promised us action but didn’t take it.”
The air traffic controllers have additionally met with Vice President Waheed Dean, Defence Minister Mohamed Nazim, Tourism Minister Ahmed Adheeb, Transport Minister Ameen Ibrahim, MACL, the Civil Aviation Authority, and the Labour Relations Authority, “but nothing happened,” they explained.
Over a year ago air traffic controllers submitted a case to the Labour Tribunal signed by more than 40 individuals, the sources noted.
“On December 21, 2012, over 60 air traffic controllers signed a petition that gave notice that we would be going on strike. We were promised that by January 1 our grievances would be addressed, the grading structure would be re-implemented and we would receive proper raises,” the sources added.
The controllers agreed to withdraw the case when promised the reforms and did, however the promised action was still not forthcoming.
“We met with MDP’s Mohamed Nasheed and he pledged that under his government he would correct the mistakes and try to get us better pay,” the controllers noted. “We [also recently] met with the other political parties, but so far nothing.”
“Some [of us] are waiting for confirmation in writing [that our demands will be met], but many are waiting for the Supreme Court to rule so we can have an election,” the sources continued. “We’ve heard that MACL ground services employees are also planning to strike.”