Terrance B. Lettsome International Airport
The territory’s airports closed from 1 p.m. May 26 until the next morning because of a staffing issue at the control tower at Terrance B. Lettsome International Airport (above), according to government. (File photo: INTERLINK)

The day after American Airlines tested its direct service between here and Miami, all the territory’s airports closed suddenly at 1 p.m. on May 26 because the Beef Island control tower was short-staffed, according to the BVI Airports Authority.

The facilities reopened at 7 a.m. on May 27.

BVIAA Managing Director Kurt Menal explained that the facilities were forced to close after the authority “could not satisfy the minimum requirement in staffing levels to ensure continuous operations of the control tower in accordance with applicable regulations,” according to a press release issued at 7:25 a.m. on May 27.

Communications and Works Minister Kye Rymer denied social-media rumours of a strike by air traffic controllers.

“While I recognise the many challenges faced today, I am pleased to report that there was no industrial action taken by the staff at our air traffic control tower and the issues faced were as a result of the authority’s inability to satisfy a regulatory requirement with regards to staffing levels — issues that they have been addressing at all levels on an ongoing basis to ensure a permanent solution,” Mr. Rymer said in the release.

How it happened

Mr. Menal also explained in the release that when the BVIAA realised it was unable to satisfy staffing requirements, its management and operations teams “immediately” met to develop a contingency plan to allow operations to continue — but that was only possible through 1 p.m. Friday.

The Beacon, however, received no advance notice of the closure.

A brief BVIAA bulletin that circulated on the afternoon of May 26 on social media purported to give advance notice, but the Beacon never received it from the BVIAA, and it wasn’t posted to the government’s website until 2:17 p.m., when the closure was already in effect.

BVIAA officials didn’t respond to messages seeking clarification.

Board meeting

In the Saturday morning release, BVIAA Chairman Theodore Burke apologised for the inconvenience to travellers.

He added that when the board of directors was informed of the imminent closure, it convened an emergency meeting to reassure managers that the board was “fully committed to supporting any and all efforts to return the airport to fully operational status,” the release stated.

‘Full investigation’

The board then launched a “full investigation into any possible causes of the operational issues faced,” according to the release.

A team from the Control Tower and the Operations Department attended the board meeting, where they “assisted in fine tuning the operational contingency plan to ensure that future occurrences of this nature do not actualise,” the release added.

The meeting was also attended by Mr. Rymer and Financial Secretary Jeremiah Frett, who is the sole shareholder of the BVIAA, according to the release.

“We are indeed blessed with a team of air traffic controllers that are dedicated, passionate and fully committed to their careers and the stability and growth of the VI’s economy,” Mr. Rymer said.

The BVIAA is currently undergoing a recruitment drive designed to increase the manpower in the Air Traffic Control Unit, according to government.