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Unsafe Situation in Bahamas Affecting U.S. Traffic - (6/29/2001)

WASHINGTON - A labor situation in the Bahamas which led to the replacement of air traffic controllers with unqualified personnel has not only jeopardized air safety there but is creating problems for U.S. controllers at the Miami Air Route Traffic Control Center.

Controllers working the sector of airspace which handles flights to and from the Bahamas to South Florida report numerous problems in transferring control of aircraft, especially for flights entering Miami Center airspace. Using radar, Miami controllers can see when flights leave Nassau but are not consistently receiving the detailed flight information which is required shortly after takeoff. Basic, vital data, including codes used to identify aircraft, is sometimes not relayed.

“This situation is causing a real heightened awareness level and increasing the complexity of the traffic in our area,” said Greg Harris, a NATCA representative at Miami Center who controls traffic in the affected airspace. “It’s edging on a safety factor because you just never know if the Bahamian controllers are going to comply with the rules in place. It appears they are so overwhelmed with what is going on that they’re not efficient.”

Add to the recent labor situation the fact that traffic has increased five to seven percent in the area over the past five years and NATCA believes a bad situation is getting worse. “They can’t handle it,” Harris said of the Bahamian replacement controllers. “U.S. controllers are having to do more work to compensate for their lack of basic skills.”

Of particular concern is weekend traffic. Miami Center controllers typically handle 170 arrivals and 160 departures daily between the Bahamas, a figure that jumps 20 percent on weekends. Nearly 90 percent of the controllers at Nassau International Airport were placed on administrative leave three months ago following a labor dispute. The government had agreed to allow the controllers to return to work, but so far has failed to do so, instead assigning many of them to a new unit called the Aeronautical Information Service Section. However, the replacement controllers are not certified to work traffic, which is precisely the reason given to the controllers now barred from returning to the tower.

“The Bahamian government is refusing to allow these controllers to be re-certified for the simple pleasure of flexing its muscle,” NATCA Executive Vice-President Ruth Marlin said. “Meanwhile, Miami controllers are having to pick up the slack.”

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