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Feb 23, 2015

Air Traffic Controllers Summoned to Meeting

In the wake of that unprecedented situation at the Phillip Goldson International Airport, reports circulated that the air traffic controllers who called in sick on Saturday were refused entry to their worksite on Sunday. It is alleged that they were told to instead report to a meeting at one-thirty today, and that’s where Mike Rudon picks up the story.

 

Mike Rudon, Reporting

At a few minutes after one thirty this afternoon, air traffic controllers and representatives from the Public Service Union waited at the airport checkpoint for approval to enter. They were scheduled to meet with Civil Aviation officials at the headquarters on the PGIA compound. We are told that this is the first time these air traffic controllers have been allowed on site since they called in sick on Saturday.

 

On Saturday Civil Aviation officials were forced to call in former employee Rick Cocom to take over the control tower after the re-routing of two international flights, cancellation of local traffic and near panic at the P.G.I.A. Cocom, who resigned after twenty-nine years just a couple years ago, told us that he received the call early Saturday morning and arrived at the P.G.I.A. at around ten.

 

Rick Cocom

Rick Cocom, Former Air Traffic Controller

“There were officers there, at least about six officers, junior officers that work in the aeronautical reporting office…they are the ones that get the flight plans for the planes and coordinate with the coordinating center so that we can have coordination for the arrival and departure of traffic. But when I arrived there, everything appeared…I heard that they mentioned that there was a delay and there was a lot of cancellation. I arrived at about ten and operation starts almost at that time, immediately and we had all the local traffic within Belize—Tropic Air, Maya Island Air, all the other traffic that was already in operation. And there was already someone in the control tower that was doing, and it was a Belizean. He is qualified, he’s there actually for twenty-nine or thirty years already, Mister Victor Moreno, he is one of the senior controllers that we have there. And the young lady that was there, she was also a newly…she just came back from training. They were already up there.”

 

Cocom took over operations in the air control tower and the radar room, working all day Saturday and Sunday to direct and control plane landings and take-offs.

 

Rick Cocom

“There was a lot of traffic. I never worked like that before in my life as a traffic controller while I was there, but I just think that the experience kicked in. I know that many people would question about qualification and this stuff, but they should have questioned about the un-safety of the skies. There were so many innocent people coming in and they could have avoid all kind of mishap. There could have been an air disaster if no one was there.”

 

While at a press conference on Saturday officials from Civil Aviation and Tourism claimed no warning or clue, COLA President, Geovanni Brackett, says that the frustration of air traffic controllers has been building for months and is well documented, though apparently ignored, by management.

 

Geovanni Brackett

Geovanni Brackett, President, COLA

“For years now they have been having several meetings with the management and as far as what has been relayed to me, is that they had made it very clear to the management that one of the biggest problems that they have is a shortage of professional, qualified controllers. According to them, if you exclude supervisors, there are nine qualified controllers between the tower control and the radar room. One of those individuals is on the verge of retirement. There are other issues of salaries, of increments, that they have not received as yet. and there are other issues, which I find this one to be very serious, is that there is a faulty radar system in the radar room where they tracks sometimes disappears. That’s very serious. Allegedly and according to what have been told to me is also that you have faulty headsets. Now if you can’t communicate to the pilots.”

 

According to Rick Cocom, the situation was critical because of the lack of trained personnel, but there is always a plan if the P.G.I.A. would have had to shut down completely.

 

Rick Cocom

“It’s very crucial because Belize has a limited amount of controllers. We are not like the other countries, compared to Guatemala and Salvador, the controllers are up to over a hundred that are there. I think the last time and there are several; times that they have strikes…well I didn’t call this strike; this is some sickness that they had. But over there for example in Guatemala, we have controllers that have went on strikes and go-slow and it actually got them fired because it is very critical…air traffic services. But if the airport had been closed, all aircrafts that were coming in would have been diverted to alternative airports. All aircrafts that come have a flight plan that will have an alternate air-drum if in case they cannot land at their point of origin; they will go to the alternate. And they will have enough fuel to do that. So if the airport had been closed, we had the official that is there to send out a notice to airmen that would inform all adjacent airports that Belize is closed for whatever situation.”

 

We understand that on Sunday three air traffic controllers were flown in from El Salvador, and it is believed that they are in place currently since Belizean air traffic controllers have yet to be re-installed. Mike Rudon for News Five.

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