Air Controllers’ Strike Goes On
THOUGH government officials are threatening toreplace them, Costa Rica’s 89 air traffic controllers saidthis week they will continue a strike they began June 26,which halted the use of radar at the nation’s airports formore than a week.Costa Rican air traffic has continued normally,according to government officials, since 28 foreigninterim controllers took over operations just after thestrike began (TT, July 2).The Costa Rican controllers, on strike because ofsalary differences with the government, had said thelack of radar and the fact that the replacements were not familiar with Costa Rica’s geography hadput many flights “in grave danger,” andcited one case in which two planes reportedlyflew within 150 feet of each other onthe central Pacific coast.THE 28 foreign controllers were notenough to run all the nation’s control towersand the radar, Civil Aviation authorities said,but on Tuesday nine additional controllersarrived to operate the radar systems at JuanSantamaría International Airport, the country’smain airport just outside San José, andthe nation’s radar control center in Alajuela.Leonardo Guillén, a spokesman for theAir Traffic Controllers Union, told The TicoTimes the nine controllers were provided bythe Mexican Armed Forces and were likelythe same used to fill in during a strike in theDominican Republic four months ago.However, Carlos Sevilla, of theDepartment of Civil Aviation’s TechnicalSecurity Committee, said though some arefrom Mexico, the nine came from variouscountries and none are military personnel.ALL of the interim controllers are beingpaid $150 a day by the Central American AirNavigation Agency (COCESNA), a not-for profitcompany that provides aeronauticalnavigation and security support to CentralAmerican countries. The agency is fundedprimarily by airlines that pay for theagency’s services, and the Costa Rican governmentclaims the agreement with theagency could go on indefinitely.The striking controllers have focusedon what they claim is a lack of safety atCosta Rican airports, while governmentofficials have maintained everything isoperating normally.The striking controllers went as far assending a letter to the U.S. FederalAviation Administration (FAA) requestingintervention.However, the FAA will likely not involveitself in the situation, said WilliamShumann, a spokesman for the organizationin Washington, D.C., because the FAA doesnot involve itself in civil aviation operationsof foreign countries. He also said somethingas short-lived as a strike would almost certainlynot affect Costa Rica’s safety category.THE striking workers are demanding asalary increase of 35% above certain CivilAviation Inspectors who currently earnmore than the controllers – something theyclaim was promised them in 1994.Public Works and Transport MinisterJavier Chaves said last week that the controllersare asking for a raise 35% abovenew categories added to Civil Aviation in2000, which would more than double thecontrollers’ current salaries – something hesaid is not negotiable.The closest either party came to negotiatingthis week was one botched attempton Monday, about which the governmentand the controllers offer stories that differgreatly.President Abel Pacheco said duringTuesday’s Cabinet meeting that it appearedas though Ombudsman José ManuelEchandi had falsely told both parties thatthe other had an offer. When both partiesarrived without an offer, the President said,the meeting ended abruptly.“Personally, I have nothing against theOmbudsman. My impression is that sometimeshe likes to politick a lot. That cancause Costa Rica problems,” Pacheco said.HOWEVER, Echandi told The TicoTimes that he had organized the meeting withthe intention of acting as a mediator, but laterreceived word that the President had toldChaves that he did not want the Ombudsmanto mediate between the two parties.“The President did not want me to bethere,” Echandi said. “I think it’s a personalproblem he has with me.”The Ombudsman’s annual report,released in early June, contained scathingcriticism of Pacheco and his administration,emphasizing the government’s lack of transparency.The Pacheco administration attemptedto discredit the report immediately after itsrelease by saying Echandi was waging apolitical campaign (TT, June 18).UNION spokesman Guillén said thatwhen the controllers arrived at the CivilAviation Administration’s office in SanJosé to negotiate Monday, there was a notefrom Echandi apologizing for his absenceand explaining that the President had askedthat he not mediate. He said the controllersleft because they considered it impossibleto negotiate without a mediator.In addition to the controllers, 36 CivilAviation personnel working in theAeronautical Information Services andFlight Planning offices are on strike,Guillén said, bringing the total number ofstriking workers to 125.CHAVES this week threatened toreplace all the workers if the strike isdeclared illegal by a judge.Labor Ministry representatives last weekfiled three official requests now being handledby a San José judge asking that thestrike be declared illegal. Though JudicialBranch representatives said the judge wouldlikely rule on the matter Monday or Tuesdayof this week, no decision had beenannounced by press time yesterday.Government officials have also saidthe striking controllers may find themselvesmissing their paychecks soon.Guillén said the controllers have notbeen daunted by the talk of no pay or thepossibility of being fired.“We know this is a tactical movement– they are trying to intimidate us,” Guillénsaid. “They are waiting until payday to seewhat we’ll do with no money. It will be asurprise for them.”GUILLÉN said representatives fromthe Internal Workers Front (FIT), a unionof the Costa Rican Electricity Institute(ICE), stepped forward to offer the supportof their organization, as did the Union ofPort Workers of Limón.Ricardo Segura, a FIT spokesman,confirmed the organization supports thestrike, and said FIT representativesplanned to meet with controllers late yesterdayor today to discuss a joint strategy.Guillén said port workers’ union representativesin Limón were planning a several-hour, symbolic halt in work to expresstheir support for the controllers, but did notsay when that would take place. The TicoTimes was unable to confirm this withunion representatives.THOUGH the airports are operatingwith radar now, passengers interviewed byThe Tico Times Wednesday at JuanSantamaría said they were frightened bythe prospect of landing without radar andwith a reduced number of controllers.“It’s a little nerve racking,” said DarinHinson, a 26-year-old teacher from theUnited States here to surf with friends.However, no one reported noticing anyabnormalities during their landing at JuanSantamaría.“No planes whizzing by or anythinglike that,” said 28-year-old Jared Petty, partof a visiting missionary group.
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