Thursday, January 08, 2015

Overtime row leaves Namibia airspace unmonitored

An unnamed  air controller based at Eros area control center fell ill on Tuesday evening and left the country's airspace unmonitored.

Other air controllers refused to fill in for him, saying they were not being paid overtime and a Notice to Air Men (NOTAM) was immediately dispatched informing other aircraft using the airspace about the possible dangers. 

In response, the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) downgraded the Namibian airspace from Class A to G.

The NOTAM was lifted yesterday morning at 04h37 after an air controller had reported for duty. 

Namibia currently has 38 air traffic controllers instead of the required 60. They all work in one-man shifts from 19h00 to 07h00.

Sources said the air traffic controller's blood pressure shot up and he fainted when he was informed that he would not be receiving overtime. According to the sources, the air controller has school going children.

The director of civil aviation, Angeline Simana confirmed yesterday that the country's air space was downgraded after an air controller fell sick while on duty and left.

Deputy director: Aviation, Administration and Navigation at the Directorate of Civil Aviation Tobias Günzel also confirmed the downgrade yesterday but said it was within ICAO standards.

Günzel said although Hosea Kutako International Airport was manned, Namibia's radar was not staffed. He also admitted that “overflying aircraft were affected but only by receiving a different type of service”.

“By downgrading the airspace the aviation community was just informed about the type of service they would receive in Namibia. Class G is a recognised ICAO standard - pilots are aware of the services and can operate safely,” he explained.

Günzel further said that the air controller who fell ill went for medical checks before returning to work.

The Namibian understands that air controllers are blaming Günzel of refusing to sign off their overtime payments. Yesterday, sources said a meeting was held to discuss the overtime issue and that Günzel stood his ground on the issue.

The sources allege that Günzel is refusing to sign off the overtime because the air controllers signed a petition against the renewal of an ICAO expert, Anders Ellerstrand.

However, Günzel said the meeting was “an internal matter”. He also said the Ellerstrand issue was an internal matter. 

Namibia Air Traffic Control Association's president, Erik Bruys said he was aware of the situation but declined to comment further.

Some of the air controllers who spoke on condition of anonymity yesterday said they are being overworked, with some staying on for eight hours, while the required number of hours should be only four.

“We have been working without our pay. We need to pay for our children school fees it is unfair,” one of the air controllers said.

Although Günzel denied that the downgrade had severe implications, an air control officer said the move compromised the security of the country and endangered the lives of many people.

He also said international flights were forced to re-route or to fly in an uncontrolled airspace with the use of Visual Flight Rules.

Although it is not clear how much Namibia lost in flight charges, with Günzel saying there were no cost implications, the air traffic controller said it is possible that the country lost millions of dollars, “Flights from Germany, South Africa all had to risk lives flying over our uncontrolled airspace. We could be blacklisted as a result,” the air traffic controller who asked not to be named said.

Six months today, ICAO downgraded the Hosea Kutako International Airport after it was found that the Rescue and Fire Fighting Services was not staffed. The fire tenders had also failed an audit.

Minister of Works and Transport Errki Nghimtina had at the time questioned the presence of the ICAO experts, saying he had not seen any progress reports of what they had done for the country in the past six years.

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