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Striking Ethiopian Air Traffic Controllers Returning to Work

Most striking air traffic controllers at the Addis Ababa Bole International Airport and some domestic airports in Ethiopia have returned to work after union leaders agreed to some concessions with the country’s civil aviation authority (ECAA) on Wednesday. According to the Flight Service Bureau’s OpsGroup, qualified controllers again staff the Addis area control center and tower, thereby restoring normal safety standards. However, nine leaders of the Ethiopian ATC Association remain in jail awaiting court hearings for their roles in organizing the strike.

The association claimed that they called for a salary increase for the past eight years, adding that neither the ECAA nor the government would engage in talks.

Although the controllers promised to serve VIP, air ambulance, and military flights at the airport during the strike, authorities denied them access to the ATC tower. The airport handles more than 200 flights per day. It serves as Ethiopian Airlines’ main hub, and 13 international airlines fly scheduled service to Addis Ababa, including Emirates, Lufthansa, Qatar Airways, and Turkish Airlines.

The director general of ECAA, Wossenyeleh Hunegnaw, told AIN that the authority had recalled retired air traffic controllers and others on other senior assignments to replace those on strike. “We are handling all the outgoing and incoming flights properly,” he said. “We have a shortage of personnel and we are stressed but we are handling it perfectly thanks to our dedicated staff.” Nevertheless, according to Flight Service Bureau, untrained and unqualified foreign controllers had staffed the tower during the strike, raising serious safety concerns. ECAA leaders told AIN that they too harbored serious safety concerns about the use of controllers unfit for the job.

Hunegnaw acknowledged to AIN that ECAA had recruited some controllers from other African countries who could assist the authority during the strike. He denied all claims that the plan had compromised safety, however.

“We deployed qualified personnel whom most of them are still serving the authority in other departments,” he said. “Some of them are retired ATCs but all of them took refreshing courses. These are the instructors who trained the young ATCs. There is no safety concern as we are closely monitoring the workflow. But the young ATCs want to put pressure on us so that we will meet their outrageous demands.”

The roughly 200 air traffic controllers in Ethiopia each earn a monthly salary of up to 15,000 Ethiopian Birr ($538). Before the strike, the association had called for a 1,000 percent pay increase.

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