A strike by Costa Rica’s near 100 air trafficcontrollers that began last Saturday, criticizedas illegal by top government officials, has thenation’s airports operating with an interim forceof 28 foreign controllers, precluding the use ofradar.Local controllers say the switch puts manyflights in “grave danger.”The striking workers are demanding salaries 35%above certain Civil Aviation Inspectors who currentlyearn more than the controllers – something they claimthe government promised them in 1994.Public Works and Transport Minister Javier Chavessaid though the limited number of controllers onlyallows for the use of radio communication, visual cuesand aircraft instruments to assist in takeoffs and landings,airport safety and security have not been compromised.HOWEVER, the striking controllers and somepilots maintain that the practice of operating with one thirdthe normal amount of air traffic controllers isextremely risky.“There have been some very serious cases (in the airports).Nothing is normal or safe,” said LeonardoGuillén, the spokesman for the Costa Rican Air Traffic Controllers’ Union.For example, commercial pilot CarlosZamora filed a written complaint with theCivil Aviation Administration saying hewas 150 feet from colliding with a CessnaMonday near the Quepos airport, on theCentral Pacific coast.Chaves said the incident, which occurredSaturday, is one of three reported incidentsthis month and the only one reported sincethe foreign controllers stepped in.But Guillén said the striking workers,using a radio scanner to monitor communications,have recorded 90 “serious, serious”incidents since the foreign controllers werebrought in to run the towers.“WE are very worried about the airsecurity situation,” Guillén said. “We don’twant an accident. An accident would be adisaster for everyone.”The Central American Air NavigationAgency (COCESNA) brought in theemergency replacements and is coveringtheir salaries – $150 per person per day.The 28 controllers are from Peru, ElSalvador and Nicaragua.Alvaro Durán, of the Department ofCivil Aviation’s Technical SecurityCommittee, said the switch did not slow airservice in the country, save a several-hourdisruption just after the strike began, andlikened the change to switching from “acomputer to a word processor.”Although the strike did not significantlyaffect air traffic, it did prompt the cancellationof an emergency security simulationat the Juan Santamaría InternationalAirport, just outside of San José nearAlajuela, originally scheduled for Wednesdaymorning, as well as nationwiderestrictions on flight training.NEGOTIATIONS between the strikingworkers and government officials thisweek yielded little result, and Guillén saidthe controllers will maintain the strike untiltheir demands are met.“This is a question of dignity,” Guilléntold The Tico Times. “We will continueforward.”Guillén said Costa Rican controllerslearned of the foreign traffic controllers’arrival three days before the strike began. Hesaid it was partially that “lack of good will”on the part of the government that led to thestrike.The administration of President AbelPacheco claims to be willing to go as far aspermanently replacing all of them.Government officials from several ministriessaid the agreement with COCESNAcould continue indefinitely.COCESNA spokeswoman LianaMantilla, working in the company’s centraloffice in Honduras, said the company is anot-for-profit dedicated to Central Americanintegration. She said COCESNA obtains itsfunding from two main channels: airlinesthat frequently use Central American airspace,and fees charged for airline securitytraining courses. The airlines, she said, payfor aeronautical data and security services.Mantilla said COCESNA has had anofficial agreement with the Costa Rican governmentsince 1963, in which it guaranteesthe country the kind of navigational supportit is providing now. She said COCESNA hassimilar agreements with all CentralAmerican countries except for Panama.MINISTER Chaves said the governmentis prepared to fulfill the terms of the1994 contract with the controllers, but hesaid they are now demanding “an incrementthat is not proportional.”Chaves said the controllers’ salarieswere raised to 30% above the inspectors’ in1994, and that they are indeed owed theremainder, with their combined paymenttotaling approximately ¢200 million (about$460,000). He said the government hasagreed to pay that amount.“We’re not talking about smallmoney,” he said. “But that is reasonable.”Air traffic controllers currently makebetween ¢450,000 ($1,034) and ¢700,000($1,609) per month, Chaves said.But now, he said they are demanding35% more than inspectors in new categoriesadded to Civil Aviation in 2000 – anincrease that would more than double thecontrollers’ current salaries. This, Chavessaid, is not negotiable.Guillén said regardless of the new categories,the controllers should earn morebecause they make a much greater contributionto air traffic security than inspectors.LABOR Minister Ovidio Pacheco saidthe strike is illegal, as the labor code mandatesthat employees of public transportationservices offer to negotiate beforeannouncing a strike – something he saidthe controllers did not do.Guillén, however, insists that the controllersdid attempt to negotiate.Minister Pacheco also said strikes thatcould cause significant economic damage tothe country violate the labor code, andalleged that the controllers’ strike put at riskthe country’s $1.2 billion tourism industry.However, Tourism Minister RodrigoCastro said the strike has not affectedtourist traffic.Just the same, Labor Ministry representativeson Monday officially requestedthat judges in Alajuela, Liberia and SanJosé declare the strike illegal. Those threecities are home to the country’s majorinternational airports: Juan Santamaría(Alajuela), Tobías Bolaños (Pavas), andDaniel Oduber (Liberia). Civil Aviation’sAlvaro Durán said all of the nation’s controllerswere distributed among the three.SANDRA Castro, a spokeswomanfrom the Judicial Branch, said the threerequests are being handled as one case by aSan José judge, who she said should ruleon the matter Monday or Tuesday.If the strike is declared illegal, the governmentwill be able to fire the strikingcontrollers without paying them a severancepackage.Guillén said the potential declarationof illegality does not worry the workers, as“there has never been a legal strike inCosta Rica.”Presidency Minister Ricardo Toledosaid the controllers’ union lawyer all butcompletely broke off negotiations with thegovernment Monday. Toledo said repeatedlythis week that if the controllers don’twork, they will not be paid.“In 15 days we’re going to have peoplewith problems – people who haven’t beenpaid,” he said.BOTH Toledo and Chaves publiclyasked to controllers to resume negotiations.Public Security Minister Rogelio Ramossaid some of the interim controllers receivedthreats, so police are providing added securityfor the foreign workers, all of whom hesaid have obtained the necessary immigrationdocuments to work here.