The aviation industry in TT was once perceived as elitist, as most of the professional jobs were held by people from wealthy families.
Three events changed the demographics of local aviation.
The first event was the BWIA pilots’ strike in February 1978 over the dismissal of a colleague. Up to that time, the majority of pilots employed by BWIA were descendants of the plantocracy, and the pilots' body had only a few people of colour.
After the strike, Parliament debated a bill to amend the Industrial Relations Act (IRA) to make all civil-aviation operations "essential industries and essential services."
During the debate, the striking pilots wore their uniforms and sat in Parliament’s public gallery to listen.
This columnist was a member of the House of Representatives at that time and clearly recalls two senior Cabinet ministers pointing to the public gallery and asking, “Are these the people flying the national airline?”
The very next week, Cabinet decided to award, on an annual basis, 20 commercial pilot scholarships tenable at the Caribbean Aviation Training Institute at Mausica.
One of the recipients was Grace Anthony, from the southland, who already held a private pilot's licence.
Anthony became the first woman in TT with a commercial pilot's licence. She first flew as a co-pilot on the Avro HS-748 aircraft and then went on the Lockheed L1011-500 Tristar, which at the time was the most technologically advanced jet.
The second event was during my tenure as the CEO of the high-profile TT Civil Aviation Authority. In TT society, biases and prejudices abound. Some are real, some perceived, and others mischievously created to advance sinister agendas. As CEO, I walked a tightrope to ensure the TTCAA provided equal employment opportunities to all. The major challenge was the recruitment of air traffic controllers.
Historically, the government awarded scholarships to people to train as air traffic controllers (ATC) based on academic qualifications and other assessments such as English-language proficiency. In the mid-nineties, the government abolished the scholarship system and required people who met the selection criteria to pay US$5,000 for the six-month ATC course.
The impact of this decision was that most people from low-income families could not afford to pay and therefore did not apply for the ATC course. This resulted in a very noticeable ethnic imbalance in the air-traffic-control student intake.
This situation was very disconcerting to me, for obvious reasons. In order to treat with this issue, I sought a meeting with Minister of Works and Transport Colm Imbert in 2008 and outlined the situation to him. I proposed that the solution was for the ATC course to be GATE-approved, and requested his assistance. Imbert immediately called then Minister of Science, Technology and Tertiary Education Christine Kangaloo, and requested that she meet with me to discuss the matter.
I met with Kangaloo and explained the problem and the proposed recommendations. She stated that she fully understood my objectives and arranged for me to meet with the Accreditation Council of TT (ACTT) executive director, Michael Bradshaw.
I visited the ACTT offices, where they provided me with a package that outlined the procedures for obtaining accreditation for the ATC course.
In 2009, the ACTT accredited the ATC course and upgraded the programme to diploma level. Following its accreditation, the ATC course was fully GATE-approved in 2011.
All subsequent advertisements for the ATC course had a statement, “Fully GATE-approved,” in bold lettering.
The first student intake of students consisted of people from low-income families.
A notable beneficiary of the GATE programme was Akelia Scott, a young woman from a very low-income family who lived in a small village in Moruga. Akelia’s dream was to become an air traffic controller. With great diligence and discipline, Akelia persevered and was tutored and mentored by instructors such as Manwar Ali, Malcolm de Pezia and Nandalal Manoo. She excelled in the ATC diploma course. Today, Scott is a fully rated aerodrome, approach and area air traffic controller and a role model to all young people.
The third event was the provision of air-traffic-control services at the ANR Robinson airport tower in Tobago by Trinidad-based ATCs on short-term assignments.
They were accommodated at apartments at Signal Hill, owned by the Tobago House of Assembly. Apart from the cost of the outstation allowances, there were numerous administrative problems associated with these arrangements. The apartments were poorly maintained. In 2009, due to the appalling condition of the apartments, all the ATCs were moved to a hotel.
The TTCAA, at its own expense, fully refurbished all the apartments, installing air conditioning units, water tanks and appliances such as washers, dryers, refrigerators, stoves, etc. The apartments were also burglar-proofed.
There were other issues, as most of the ATCs had families back in Trinidad, with some commuting there on their off days and sometimes having difficulty getting a flight back to Tobago to resume duties.
In consultation with the executive manager of air navigation, a decision was taken to train residents of Tobago as air traffic controllers.
The THA agreed to pay the boarding and lodging costs for the Tobago students. The first batch of Tobago students began their ATC training in 2012.
Since 2014, all ATC services in Tobago have been performed by Tobago residents. When these ATCs are due for upgrade training and promotion, they relocate to Trinidad and are replaced by other Tobago residents, trained as ATCs.
The sky is the limit and if you dream it, you can live it.