Air traffic disruption closes State's three main airports

 

Minister for Transport Noel Dempsey has indicated the Government may consider a 'no-strike' clause in the contracts of workers in vital services, after disruption today at Dublin, Cork and Shannon airports due to industrial action by air traffic controllers.

Up to 150 flights carrying some 20,000 passengers in and out of the country's three main airports were cancelled this afternoon. Runways were closed between 2pm and 6pm while the 300 controllers attended a mandatory meeting called by their trade union, Impact.

A possible escalation of the strike action will be discussed by Impact tomorrow.

The union announced the action yesterday following the suspension of a number of air traffic controllers by the Irish Aviation Authority (IAA) for refusing to co-operate with new technology.

The IAA suspended a further two air traffic controllers today, bringing the total number suspended to 14. It said that it had “no choice” but to suspend controllers who had stopped doing ongoing work they have already been doing.

The authority warned the actions by the air traffic controllers through Impact "are likely to escalate". Both sides have disputed the core issues at the centre of the row. Management claims that the dispute centres on pay and pensions while the union insists the stoppages today are a result of the suspensions.

Aer Lingus said 64 flights were cancelled due to the stoppage. While some delays remain, flight schedules were returning to normal this evening.

A Ryanair spokesman said the stoppage would cause up to 48 cancellations across the State's airports today. The airline has also cancelled two flights at Knock and Kerry airports. Aer Arann said five of its flights have been cancelled, with delays expected on a further 15.

Flights through Irish airspace were also affected.

Speaking in the Dáil this afternoon, Mr Dempsey said today's action had "strengthened" the view he had given two years ago in relation to 'no-strike' clauses.

He said, however, it was not a decision he could make himself as it involved a number of different Government departments.

Mr Dempsey said the option "will have to be looked at" if such a "disproportionate type of response to an industrial relations issue is going to be a feature of industrial relations in this country".

"Then every option has to be looked at and...I think everybody in the House now thinks that this is disproportionate.”

Criticising the air traffic controllers involved in the dispute, the Minister said it was "a deliberate action by a small group of well-paid people".

"These air traffic controllers perform a very vital function. Their alleged reason for walking off the job today is not acceptable," Mr Dempsey said. He said it was important that both sides get into the Labour Court.

The IAA had, he said, indicated it was willing to go back into that forum and was willing to withdraw the suspensions if the air traffic controllers returned to duties they had been undertaking prior to December 31st. He said it was "very simple, very straightforward".

Fine Gael transport spokesman Fergus O'Dowd said "nobody" had any sympathy for the controllers. He said the Minister had agreed with him two years ago that there should be a 'no-strike' clause in the contracts of workers in certain essential sectors and asked for a commitment by the Government to introduce such legislation.

Labour Party transport spokesman Tommy Broughan said the dispute had created a “truly horrendous” situation for people today and he asked what the Minister had done to prevent it.

"You’ve known, and your department has known since the beginning of this month and last month that there was a dispute in relation to the new air management system," Mr Broughan said.

Mr Dempsey said today's dispute was not a "disaster that befell us" but had arisen because a small number of workers had "challenged management" in relation to "another dispute they were having over a 6 per cent [pay] increase".

The IAA said today it wanted full services restored as quickly as possible once the controllers and Impact give an assurance that they would resume normal working practices, suspend their 6 per cent pay claim and make a contribution towards their pension in line with all other public service workers.

Impact said the disruption to flights was taking place "solely because management at the IAA suspended air traffic controllers from duty in Dublin and Shannon airports, without pay". It said that the disruption could be avoided if management withdrew the suspensions.

However, the IAA maintains that the dispute is not about new technology and work practices but rather about pay.

It said air traffic controllers are among the best paid public servants in the country. "On average, they cost the Irish Aviation Authority €160,000 each. Earnings for the top ten per cent of controllers in the country last year ranged from €170,000 to €230,000," the IAA said.

"They work 182 days a year, they have 137 rest days, and 36 days holidays - in addition to 10 public holidays. They work a 35 hour week. They are entitled to a break of 30 minutes for every two hours worked. They work five days and then get three days off," it said. "We want them to be reasonable and suspend discussion of this 6 per cent increase."