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Strike ballot risks ‘unnecessary disruption’ at airport, NATS says

Photo by Johnny Bugeja.

Air traffic control company NATS said on Wednesday that a strike ballot that could impact its services in Gibraltar was “regrettable” and risked “unnecessary disruption” for passengers.

The company was responding after the UK-based Public and Commercial Services Union [PCS] declared a dispute over pay.

PCS said its members employed by NATS in Gibraltar received ““less preferential terms” than UK counterparts and had been offered a pay increase that did not reflect the impact of the cost-of-living increases.

The union said it had attempted to negotiate with NATS over the 4.8% offer but had made little progress to obtain a deal that would address its members concerns.

It said low salaries and poor morale had led to staff being unwilling to cover overtime shifts and sickness.

“PCS will always strive to improve the pay of our members who have continued to work tirelessly throughout the pandemic and we will not tolerate tactics from the employer to continue to delay talks whilst tabling an offer which falls significantly short of our members’ aspirations and needs,” said PCS full time official Adam Verinder.

The staffing issues led to intermittent disruption for passengers in recent months, with service delayed, diverted and even cancelled outright on some occasions.

It also created deep concern in Gibraltar, where the airport is a critical part of the Rock’s economy for business and tourism alike, providing a vital link to the UK for the wider community.

After the problems flared up last year, NATS said it would bolster its resilience in Gibraltar with additional staff.

The pay dispute does not involve air traffic controllers, but rather air traffic service assistants [ATSAs] who provide vital support and medical cover without which the airport cannot function.

At present, NATS employs nine ATSAs in Gibraltar but has recruited two more in recent months who are currently undergoing training, the company told the Chronicle.

For commercial reasons, NATS would not disclose how many controllers it employed in Gibraltar.

But it acknowledged that the current complement was “one below” what it would require to give resilience in the roster.

It added, however, that it had recruited recently to increase this number beyond the requirement.

Part of the challenge faced by the company is that air traffic control staff are in demand across the industry, which can make it hard to attract applicants.

Additionally, Gibraltar’s unique circumstances – not every airport has a Rock next to it, for example – mean staff must undergo specific training geared to Gibraltar International Airport, a process that takes time.

"Air traffic control is a safety service,” a spokesperson for NATS told the Chronicle.

“It is, therefore, regrettable that the PCS union has decided to call a ballot following the latest round of pay talks to agree a settlement for 2022.”

“We have worked hard to find common ground.”

“We have offered a pay rise of 4.8%, which is in line with Gibraltar RPI, backdated more than a year to 1 January 2022.”

“In addition, we have offered a £3,000 lump sum to colleagues who joined us before April, so as to help with cost-of-living increases.”

“This is in line with what we have already agreed with PCS members in the UK for 2022.”

“We believe this is a generous offer at a time when the aviation industry is still struggling.”

“This action will cause unnecessary disruption for passengers and we ask PCS to return to talks to find a resolution.”

The developments this week were being closely monitored by two other parties, the Ministry of Defence and the Gibraltar Government, who are both adamant that a resolution to the dispute must be found so as to avoid further disruption at Gibraltar International Airport.

The Ministry of Defence, which is responsible for the runway, contracts air traffic management services to a company called Aquila, a joint venture between NATS and global systems integrator Thales.

Aquila provides the radar equipment and engineering support for air traffic control in Gibraltar, and contracts NATS for the provision of the service itself.

“We are aware of ongoing negotiations between PCS and NATS,” an MoD spokesperson told the Chronicle.

“We are speaking with Aquila, as the contracted service provider of NATS, to seek assurance that this will not impact on the provision of the air traffic control service at Gibraltar.”

Earlier this week, the Gibraltar Government told the Chronicle it was “very concerned” about the “many challenges” that had impacted the provision of air traffic control services at Gibraltar International Airport in recent months.

“This is an MoD responsibility which is outsourced by them,” a spokesperson for No.6 Convent Place told the Chronicle.

“That outsourcing contract is presently clearly failing and the Government has no alternative but to keep all options on the table to ensure the continued operation, in close consultation and cooperation with the MoD, to ensure that no civil contingencies arise as a result of these air traffic control failings.”

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