Prime Minister Dr. Ralph Gonsalves (File photo).

KINGSTOWN, St. Vincent – Prime Minister Dr. Ralph Gonsalves, chair of shareholder governments of regional airlines LIAT, has encouraged pilots to return to the cockpit, saying that the sickout, which began today, puts the cash-strapped airline at risk of losing “hundred of thousand of dollars”.

Gonsalves said on radio that the industrial action is “unfortunate” and that pilots were “shooting themselves in their feet”.

He said the sickout was in “solidarity” with Captain Michael Blackburn, who was dismissed from LIAT yesterday.

Reports suggest that Blackburn was fired for an alleged safety violation at the George F.L. Charles Airport in St. Lucia, recently.

Gonsalves was among thousand of travellers across the region who were grounded Tuesday because of the sick out.

He had planned to travel to St. Lucia for the swearing in of the Dr. Kenny Anthony cabinet there.

He said he expects to know the full impact of the sickout when he gets a report from LIAT Chief Executive Officer Brian Challenger.

Gonsalves, who also has ministerial responsibilities for air transportation in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, said the region’s laws make provisions for persons to seek redress if they feel they were dismissed unfairly.

He further said that LIAT was the only truly regional airline, flying thousands of passengers to 22 destinations every week and was important for regional commerce.

“You don’t close down an airline because a pilot has been dismissed. Basically you are shooting yourself in the foot. The pilots are shooting themselves in the feet,” Gonsalves said.

“LIAT is already, as a financial operation, marginal. It does a tremendous essential service across the region. … The pilots have to be responsible. You don’t pull a sickout; you don’t pull a strike in circumstances where, essentially, you have an essential service,” Gonsalves said.

“And it will be the same pilots who will ask for more wages, better working conditions. But if you make the airline lose as they would lose today and if it continues tomorrow – I don’t know how long – lose hundreds of thousand of dollars, it is affecting everybody.

“It will affect the governments who are shareholders, it will affect the workers who can’t get additional numeration,” he further stated.

He said the industrial action comes even as a government in the region – which he did not identify – has promised to support in LIAT.

“Now, where, finally we are persuading some other government to provide equity, or hopefully, market support, you are now having this kind of stunt being pulled,” said Gonsalves, who described Blackburn as his “friend”.

He said that LIAT’s management does not have to and did not consult him in respect of their decision to fire Blackburn, since it is a management rather than policy decision

“And any kinds of prior knowledge that one would have, … you have a feel of what may happen but it is not a policy issue. It is a matter for the management,” he said.

“I know that a letter had been sent to them and Mr. Blackburn’s lawyer also received a copy and I have not myself seen the letter,” he said, adding that the letter might have reached his office but he had not gone there up to the time of his comments shortly after 11 a.m.

“… so it is unfortunate that the pilots pull this solidarity, sympathetic sickout and I am hoping that they’ll get back to work at the earliest time today rather than later,” Gonsalves said.

Meanwhile, LIAT said around 9:30 a.m. that the sickout is likely to affect the rest of flights today.

It further said that Customers affected by the disruptions who wish to rebook would be allowed to do so without charge for a period of one week from the date of their original scheduled travel.

Following the one-week grace period, passengers will be required to pay applicable fare and change fees when re-booking. Passengers who are unable to travel as planned due to the industrial action, at their request, will be issued a full credit for future travel. Terms and conditions apply.

When services resume, affected passengers are advised to contact LIAT Reservations to rebook before proceeding to the airport.

LIAT also advised that passengers who decide to travel but are unable to complete their journey due to the disruption, will not be provided with meals, transportation, hotel accommodation, etc. Passengers with onward connections are advised to contact their respective carriers.

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