December 6, 2002
On Sunday, December 1, Universal Airlines as part of their first anniversary celebrations, planned to fly 160 children around Guyana on a sightseeing tour, starting at the CBJ airport, Timehri. The itinerary involved flying over Anna Regina, Bartica, Mt Roraima, Orinduik, Lethem, Kaieteur Falls, Mahdia, Linden and Rose Hall. In the event, the children got no further than taxiing around the tarmac and runway at Timehri, because the Civil Aviation Department had not granted permission for the flight - something which was not announced until everyone had actually boarded the plane.
It would seem from a press release issued by the Ministry of Education on the following day, that that ministry had been instrumental in identifying students from all regions of Guyana to go on the trip, and had arranged to bring them to the airport on the morning in question. In what was a clear reproach to Universal Airlines it stated: “Prior notification would have saved the ministry the embarrassment of having arranged to bring the children to the airport and the additional embarrassment of having the children actually board the aircraft with obvious expectation and excitement of flying only to be told that the flight could not actually take place.”
At a media briefing following the incident, Minister Xavier, who has responsibility for the Civil Aviation Department (CAD), told reporters that the department had received a letter from the airline on November 15, but that it had given no details. The CAD had then requested the relevant information by way of a written communication dated November 18, but had received no response until November 27. The Minister went on to explain that the department had pointed out that on three occasions the flight would have encroached on Brazil’s airspace, and consequently, if this plan were to be pursued, then permission would have to be sought from the Brazilian authorities through the agency of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Furthermore, he continued, Universal’s 767 was deemed too large to fly safely at the low altitudes proposed to facilitate sight-seeing. The airline had envisaged flying at an altitude of 8,000 feet, despite the fact that Mt Roraima is over 9,000 feet high. There is, it seems, poor visibility at this time of year in Guyana’s mountainous regions, to which it might be added independently of this that Mt Roraima - the tri-junction point where the boundaries of Guyana, Brazil and Venezuela meet - is frequently shrouded in mist in any case.
Exactly why Universal Airlines left its application to the CAD so late is not clear. An excursion of this kind involving children, as it does, must be carefully planned well in advance. The critical issue is obviously safety, and sufficient time should have been given for the Civil Aviation Department to consider the viability of the flight, and to assess any amended flight plan the airline might have come up with after the initial refusal, always supposing a flight under those circumstances was feasible at all.
In the end, if the trip had come off despite the reservations of the CAD, and anything untoward had happened, then the department would have been held ultimately responsible. Its job is to ensure safety in the skies as far as lies within its power, and it would not have been exercising that power responsibly had it allowed the flight to go ahead. There can be no doubt, therefore, that its denial of permission for this particular children’s outing was very much in order.
One can only infer from the sequence of events that Universal was cavalier about CAD clearance, assuming that it would be automatic. If not, how does one explain the airline making arrangements with the Ministry of Education before the CAD had pronounced on the flight? As things stand, the airline has done its reputation considerable damage. It might be noted that it would have done that reputation rather less damage if, after having been refused permission to fly, it had then cancelled the excursion altogether, instead of allowing the Ministry of Education to arrange the transportation of students to the airport to experience the disappointment which inevitably ensued. That was surely not fair to the children, in addition to which it was also not fair to the Ministry.
Exactly what was in the mind of Universal’s management when it made this flawed decision is a matter for speculation. While flying children around Guyana has an immediate appeal on the face of it, as stated above, safety must always be the primary consideration. If the airline thought that by delaying the announcement of the cancellation until the children had boarded the aircraft, the CAD would be blamed for their disappointment, then they made a serious misjudgement. It might be added too that if that was their motive, then they also behaved dishonourably.
While the Ministry of Education’s gentle rebuke to the airline for its behaviour cannot be faulted, perhaps it should be said that for future reference, the next time someone comes up with an idea of this kind, the ministry should insist that they see evidence of CAD clearance before they proceed. Although theirs is not the primary responsibility in this instance, they too are charged with ensuring the safety of students in any exercise in which they play a part, however minor.