An air traffic control strike grounded flights in and out of West and Central Africa on Friday and Saturday. The industrial action, led by staff at the Union of Air Traffic Controllers’ Unions (USYCAA), was due to a dispute over working conditions and pay. The International Federation of Air Line Pilots’ Associations (IFALPA) released a statement on Friday, saying that “a dangerous situation is developing related to the African ATC strike,” adding that it appeared that a number of controllers were replaced with unqualified and unlicensed people.
On Friday, USYCAA personnel working at the Agency for Aerial Navigation Safety in Africa and Madagascar (ASECNA), which regulates air traffic control across 18 countries, stopped working. More than 700 air traffic controllers joined the strike. They had a dispute over working conditions and pay, and defied court rulings and government bans barring them from launching industrial actions, reported Reuters.
What was supposed to be a 48-hour strike was suspended on Saturday, the union said. In a statement, USYCAA added that it had decided to immediately stop its strike notice for ten days to allow for negotiations. “Air traffic services will be provided in all air spaces and airports managed by ASECNA from today, Saturday, September 24, 2022, at 1200 GMT,” the statement said.
Airport staff walk past an empty arrivals hall outside the Felix Houphouet Boigny International airport in Abidjan on September 24, 2022, after a strike by air traffic controllers, that started Friday, paralysed serval West African airports with all commercial flights cancelled. Photo: Getty Images.
Across West and Central Africa, hundreds of passengers were stranded as airport operations had to be grounded. Several airlines canceled flights to this region, including Emirates. On Friday, the Dubai-based airline released a statement saying it had canceled flights EK795 (Dubai-Conakry-Dakar) and EK787/8 (Accra-Abidjan-Accra) on Friday and Saturday. The reason behind the cancelation was the industrial action by air traffic control personnel. “We continue to monitor the situation and apologize for the inconvenience caused,” Emirates added.
Reuters reported that eight flights scheduled to leave Abidjan on Saturday in Ivory Coast were canceled; in Senegal, Brussels Airlines, Kenyan Airways, and Emirates canceled their commercial services. The news media outlet also reported cancelations in the Republic of Congo and Cameroon. Camair-Co, Cameroon’s national carrier, canceled all its flights on Friday.
On Friday, IFALPA released a safety bulletin saying it had received worrying reports about the strike affecting several Flight Information Regions (FIRs), including Dakar Domestic, Dakar Oceanic, Bamako, Ouagadougou, Niamey, Abidjan, Lome, and Brazaville. IFALPA stated,
“A dangerous situation is developing related to the African ATC strike. According to reports received by IFALPA, it appears that a number of controllers have been replaced with unqualified and unlicensed people. Crews should exercise extreme caution when operating in these FIRs and should consider avoiding the area.”
The replacement of licensed controllers with military and other non-qualified staff was made without any NOTAM or notification. This created unreliable coordination between different units, and many ATC centers in Africa were confused about the situation.
While the strike has been temporarily suspended, pilots are still being cautious about the atmosphere for air traffic control operations in West Africa.
According to OPSGroup, ASECNA had a heavy-handed response to the strike, which included arresting striking controllers. This created “a very sour atmosphere for ATC,” which creates the potential “for lapses in judgment and safety concerns.”
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