Increased air traffic has strained staffing at the territory’s airports in recent months and led to unexpected closures, Communications and Works Minister Kye Rymer said last Thursday during a joint press conference.
“We are transitioning into an international gateway for a flourishing tourism product, and this has been met with some growing pains,” he explained. “The increased flow of visitors has put a strain on various departments, including the firefighting brigade, security, and air traffic controllers.”
The minister added that he “regrets any disruptions that occurred” and explained that his ministry is “actively monitoring the progress being made to resolve the issues that led to the closures.”
To accommodate new requirements enacted when American Airlines launched direct Miami flights in June, additional firefighters and security officers were needed, Mr. Rymer added.
“This new transition required the workers to work additional hours beyond their normal schedule of time and necessary compensation to be given to them,” he said. “These departments and workers play a crucial role in ensuring the safety and efficiency of airport operations, and the situation requires immediate attention and support so that they can cope with this growth effectively.”
He added that his ministry is working to find practical solutions to both staffing and operational problems — including ensuring that fair compensation is paid to employees. A “collaborative dialogue,” he said, is ongoing between airport management and staff representatives.
In his statement, Mr. Rymer didn’t directly confirm or deny reports that two of the recent airport closures were caused by worker strikes, but he stressed the importance of “effective and efficient communication” in workplaces.
“I’m humbly imploring that people think about how their actions may affect not only them but the entire territory when regarding the best way to deal with disagreements in the workplace,” he said. “We appreciate the patience and the understanding of the public during this time of transition. Rest assured every effort is being made to resolve the issues and build a stronger foundation for the airports’ future.”
‘Not sick anymore’
During the question-and-answer session of the press conference, BVI Airports Authority leaders fielded questions about rumours of “sickout” protests.
BVIAA Managing Director Kurt Menal denied that the alleged sickouts were protests from BVIAA staff.
“Most people reported sick,” he acknowledged. “It was resolved, because they’re not sick anymore.”
He also described a staffing shortage. Currently, there are eight air traffic controllers on staff, but the optimal number is 12, according to Mr. Menal.
“We have to meet a regulatory requirement to maintain a certain level of traffic controllers and aerodrome rescue firefighters,” he said.
He added that the BVIAA is training two more air traffic controllers and aims to recruit two others from overseas.
The territory’s airports have faced at least three unannounced closures in the past two months.
During the first — on May 26, the day after American Airlines tested its new direct service between here and Miami — rumours spread across social media about a strike by air traffic controllers. At the time, Mr. Rymer denied any such strike, though he and Mr. Menal both acknowledged that the closure came because the BVIAA wasn’t able to meet the minimum staffing requirements to ensure continuous operation of the control tower.
On June 3, the Beef Island airport was shut down again — just two days after American Airlines launched its direct service to Miami. The BVIAA said at the time that an aircraft blew a tyre upon landing.
The airport reopened the next day, only to experience further issues with the “irregular operation” of an American Airlines flight to Miami, officials said at the time.
The third time
The territory’s airports closed for a third time on July 17, forcing an American Airlines flight to be redirected to Puerto Rico while some passengers were stranded until all the territory’s airports were back online by 10 a.m. the following day.
At the time, the BVIAA didn’t confirm or dispute reports of a strike by firefighters at the Beef Island airport.
Such action appears to be banned by the 2010 Labour Code, which levies a fine up to $10,000 for a strike by workers in “essential” services including fire-and-rescue, transportation and port services.