AIR traffic controllers (ATCs) at Robert Gabriel Mugabe International Airport in Harare downed tools on Monday citing incapacitation and fatigue, forcing flight delays and cancellations yesterday morning.
ATCs are responsible for issuing landing and take-off instructions to pilots, monitor and direct the movement of aircraft on the ground and in the air using radar, computers or visual references. The industrial action has forced their superiors to step-in and rescue the situation.
The Civil Aviation Authority of Zimbabwe (CAAZ), confirmed the operational problems in a statement yesterday. Quoting the organisation’s acting director-general, Margaret Mandizha, the authority’s spokesperson Anna Hungwe said:
“This morning, we experienced an operational problem that resulted in our morning shift failing to arrive on time. This resulted in a delay in dispatching three aircraft departing from three airports. The operations reverted back to normalcy and the airspace remains open and functional adhering to the set standards by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO).”
However, CAAZ claimed that reports of planes not flying in or out because of the job action were not true.
“CAAZ has noted with concern various media reports suggesting the closure of the Zimbabwean airspace. These reports are inaccurate and meant to cause panic and chaos at our airports and despondency to the travelling public,” Hungwe said.
But sources said there was pandemonium in the morning after ATCSs on duty said they were fatigued and unable to continue with work, while those meant to relieve them declared incapacitation.
“There was initial danger that planes would not land or take off and actually they cannot do that without ATCs,” a source said.
“The intervention is that supervisors had to stand in for the planes ATC officers. The officers put up notice to strike two weeks ago citing incapacitation, poor remuneration and obsolete ATC navigation and communications equipment.”
According to a letter from the Air Traffic Controllers Association of Zimbabwe (ATCAZ) to Transport minister, Joel Biggie Matiza, Zimbabwe was risking collisions between aircraft and possible blacklisting of the country by the United Nations’ aviation agency, ICAO, due to its failure to meet a basic requirement. “We note with concern the continued deterioration in air navigation communication performance. There have been several cases in which there was total loss of air traffic services air-ground communications in the upper airspace,” the memo read in part.
“Worst case scenarios include the 25th of September, 29th of September and 16th of October 2019 where there was communication blackout lasting the whole day. This chaotic and dangerous situation persisted on the 18th of October and continued to be experienced now and then.”
ATCAZ said by failing to deliver on key mandate, the authority continued to expose airspace users to an unacceptable hazard.
“There is risk of collisions between aircraft, failure to promptly identify and assist aircraft in emergency, delays and increased operating costs for aircraft operators and losses of revenue as aircraft avoid the airspace,” the letter to Matiza read in part.
CAAZ, however, said they will continue with the mandate of developing aviation in Zimbabwe to meet international standards.