Fragile tourism fearing ‘long lasting’ airport strike damage


• BHTA chief: ‘We’re rebounding from nothing’

• Warns: ‘First and last impressions’ do matter

• DPM: Timing ‘couldn’t be worse’ as TSA here

By NEIL HARTNELL

Tribune Business Editor

nhartnell@tribunemedia.net

Bahamian tourism yesterday called for “a speedy resolution” to the strike action impacting the country’s major airports as it warned of potential “long-lasting” damage to a “fragile industry rebounding from a long period of nothing”.

Robert Sands, the Bahamas Hotel and Tourism Association’s (BHTA) president, told Tribune Business that the industrial action mounted by 227 Airport Authority employees threatens to undermine the industry that is “really driving the economic engine of the country” in its rebound from COVID- 19.

Stating that prolonged industrial action “is not something I want to think of as an option”, he voiced particular concern about the affect it might have on the arrival and departure experience for The Bahamas’ higher spending stopover visitors if they encounter delays and long queues to clear airport screening and security.

Such a “daunting” encounter, Mr Sands warned, would create a less-than-favourable “first and last impression of a premier tourism destination” that The Bahamas holds itself out to be. He voiced hope that cooler heads will prevail, and that a negotiating breakthrough could be achieved between the Government and Bahamas Public Services Union (BPSU) as early as yesterday afternoon, although there was no indication of that as this newspaper went to press.

Chester Cooper, deputy prime minister, who has responsibility for aviation, said the timing of yesterday’s industrial action “could not be worse” as it coincided with an inspection of Bahamian airport security by the US Transportation Security Administration (TSA), which oversees facilities such as US pre-clearance.

He asserted that the Government will not bow to “strong arm tactics” by the union, while trying to deflect blame to the former Minnis administration. He admitted: “It is most unfortunate that they have taken these actions. We don’t believe that they are in the interest of tourism. We are making a significant rebound in tourism and this could cause somewhat of a setback, and it is regrettable that they would jeopardise interests of the industry….

“We’ve been in office nine months. We’ve looked at the agreement in principle that was left in place by the former administration that has been going on. There was no finalizing agreement. We thought we were making significant progress over the past nine months. We asked for compromise, we asked for patience on behalf of the Bahamian people.

“The action today we think is a strong-arm tactic and we are going to do what’s best for the Bahamian people. We are not going to allow the interests of a few to trump the interests of the wider Bahamian community.…” Mr Cooper said the Government will employ all lawful measures to ensure travelers are not impacted, having brought in police and Defense Force personnel to replace Striking Airport Authority workers.

“We’re hoping that the Government works with the union to come to a speedy resolution of this particular matter,” the BHTA’s Mr Sands told this newspaper. “Any industrial action is not good for our country or the tourism sector at this point in time as we continue to rebound.”

Backing the Government and Airport Authority’s move in swiftly implementing measures to counter the impact from strike action, and ensure air travelers continued to process through security checks with relative ease, Mr Sands said BHTA member hotels and other tourism operators were “not seeing any impact in respect of business” as a result of the employees’ work no-show.

Robert Farquharson, the Government’s director of labour, nevertheless yesterday said long passenger lines had built-up at Lynden Pindling International Airport (LPIA) as a result of Airport Authority staff failing to report to The Bahamas’ major aviation gateway.

Mr Sands, though, said the tourism industry was satisfied the Government had ensured airport screening and security booths were manned with the necessary personnel. Communication was being maintained with both the airlines and LPIA operator, the Nassau Airport Development Company (NAD), and it was “managing the people flow as best as possible”.

Suggesting that a meeting had been called for yesterday afternoon “to get all parties back around the table”, the BHTA president said progress in resolving the dispute is vital to enabling The Bahamas to refocus its resources back on tourism and “to tend to a sector that is really driving the economic engine of the country at the moment.

“Any industrial action at any time is never good,” Mr Sands reiterated. “One would hope there is resolution, especially when we have such a fragile industry rebounding from a long period of nothing. It’s most unfortunate this is happening at this point in time. We’re satisfied the Government is doing everything in its power to resolve the matter as amicably as possible, but the Government wants it to be done properly and legally.”

Asked how concerned the tourism and hotel industry is about the prospect of a protracted industrial dispute impacting the major aviation gateways to most Bahamian islands, Mr Sands said: “I don’t want to think that this could possibly happen; that this goes on for a contracted period. I don’t want to think that’s an option.

“That is certainly not the type of headline we’d want communicated out of a rebounding tourism destination. It’s not great timing for this, no. The Bahamas is seeing increased levels of business. This is not the peak, but the level of business is not far off peak.”

In a subsequent statement to Tribune Business, Mr Sands warned of the dangers that prolonged industrial action poses to stopover visitors’ first and last impressions of The Bahamas. He said: “We hope that all parties involved in this grievous matter find common ground expeditiously.

“Our airports are the first and last impression our guests will have of our country. As a premier tourism destination it is imperative we welcome and pray farewell to our guests in the most efficient, effective, customer-friendly manner.”

Calling fora “welcoming, safe and expeditious airport experience” as Bahamian tourism continues its post-COVID recovery, the BHTA president: “We ask those involved in this dispute to consider the long-lasting, detrimental impact a daunting arrival or departure experience could have on our tourism economy. The age-old adages: ‘You only get one chance to make a first impression’ and ‘Last impressions are lasting impressions’ could not ring more true today.”

The Government, in a statement, said 57 Airport Authority employees in New Providence, and 170 in the Family Islands, did not report to work as scheduled yesterday morning. All were said to be BPSU members, and Airport Authority management alleged they possess a social media voice note from Kimsley Ferguson, the union’s president, where he advised workers to get sick certificates for five days and to “lock the place down”.

Mr Ferguson did not respond to Tribune Business calls seeking comment on the purported meeting with the Government or other issues arising from the industrial action. “There are a little over 200 employees assigned to New Providence. Approximately 90 percent of them did not report to normal duties who should have reported to work this morning,” Mr Farquharson said of the industrial action.

“In addition to that, there are approximately 170 employees in the Family Islands in over 17 airports that did not return to work.” One social media clip circulating on North Eleuthera Airport was accompanied by a voice note describing it as a “mayday call” for Mr Cooper, deputy prime minister.

“Hi Mr. Cooper,” it said. “You’ve got a problem. You need to come to North Eleuthera, call security. We now in charge. These people [for a Bahamasair flight] just got put out of the airport. We need your help. It’s a mayday call. You need to get a new group of people to run this Airport Authority thing.”

However, one North Eleuthera resort operator yesterday told Tribune Business that while the situation was concerning he had heard no reports of passenger arrivals and departures being disrupted. Benjamin Simmons, proprietor of The Other Side and Ocean View properties on Harbor Island and Eleuthera, said a large group of his guests left yesterday and he received no reports of disruption to incoming or outgoing flights.

“Obviously anything that impacts that airport and the guest experience is of concern,” he added. “It’s already somewhat of a small airport with minimal furniture, a lack of space and lack of shaded areas. Further delays in that setting would be of concern, particularly at this time of year when it’s so hot. Hopefully it will be short-term and the Airport Authority will have the issue resolved promptly.”

Magnus Alnebeck, general manager of Freeport’s Pelican Bay hotel, said he, too, was unaware of the strike having any affect on airlift into and out of Grand Bahamas. “Of course, it is always sad when it gets to this because there’s no question it will affect the rebound of our tourism industry in a negative way,” he said. “It would be nice if it could be resolved without a strike. The timing isn’t great and it’s the summer season.

“But, one of the advantages when you don’t have much airlift is that not much disruption can happen. I hate to sound funny about this, but that’s the reality. Of course, it’s never good to have something like this going on.”

The Airport Authority, while outsourcing LPIA’s operations to NAD, retained control and responsibility for passenger and baggage security screening as well as fire/crash rescue. It is also responsible for operations at the Family Island airports.

Meanwhile, Keith Bell, minister of labour, accused the workers involved and the BPSU of engaging in “illegal” industrial action. He said his ministerial predecessor, Dion Foulkes, referred the dispute with the Airport Authority to the Industrial Tribunal on February 27, 2021, which should have acted as a bar to any strike or other action.

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