UPDATE (5 a.m. ECT): LIAT pilots scheduled to work this morning, Wednesday Dec. 7, have called in sick. All morning flights have been disrupted. This is also likely to affect the rest of today’s flights.
KINGSTOWN, St. Vincent – Vincentians in the diaspora have been assured that they will be able to fly home for Christmas even as industrial action at LIAT threatens to widen.
Prime Minister Dr. Ralph Gonsalves, who is chair of shareholder governments of the regional airline, gave the assurance on radio yesterday, hours into a sickout by LIAT pilots.
The industrial action is intended to pressure the airline to reinstate Captain Michael Blackburn, who was fired on Monday.
Blackburn was dismissed weeks after being investigated for a safety violation at the George FL Charles Airport in St. Lucia.
“I don’t anticipate that you are going to have this as a prolonged activity. I would expect the pilots to be back in the air sooner or later,” Gonsalves told Selmon Walters, this country’s consul general in New York, of the industrial action.
Walter had called into the radio programme, on which Gonsalves made an impromptu appearance.
“A lot of people who want to come home for Christmas are now wondering whether or not LIAT would cause a problem for them in Barbados,” the former minister of government told Gonsalves.
Gonsalves was among thousands of LIAT passengers grounded on Tuesday. He had planned to fly to St. Lucia for the swearing in of the cabinet of his colleague Dr. Kenny Anthony who was recently re-elected to office.
“I think we can say with assurance, they will be able to come home for Christmas,” Gonsalves told the envoy.
But the Caribbean Media Corporation reported Tuesday night that unions representing LIAT workers said they were prepared to join the industrial action if Blackburn is not reinstated.
Chairman of the unions within the LIAT system, Grenadian trade unionist, Chester Humphrey told the Caribbean Media Corporation (CMC) that the dismissal of Blackburn, a pilot with 35 years experience, had been done on spurious grounds.
“It is an open secret … that unions are dissatisfied with the quality of managerial decisions taken by LIAT over the years and quite often a lot of these decisions have been wrong, a lot of these decisions have cost the company millions of dollars and from time to time we have had questions about the competence of LIAT management,” Humphrey further said.
He said that Blackburn, according to his letter of dismissal, is alleged to have made “certain statements about the management of LIAT”.
Humphrey said that the unions believe that Blackburn had been singled out by the airline and “his dismissal is tantamount to a brazen victimisation … meant to silence the union,” according to CMC.
Gonsalves said yesterday that the pilots’ actions was “not acceptable”.
“… somebody got dismissed: legal issues arise. It doesn’t involve pilots going to close down an airline. I mean that’s just not acceptable.
“There are remedies that are available to the pilot if he thinks he is wronged by the management of LIAT and those remedies are available in the law courts,” said Gonsalves who is the Minister of Air Transport here.
“I mean we have to get past this idea that every individual wrong which a person may suffer or believe that he has suffered from must become a national issues and to close down essential services.
“That is just not acceptable and the people in the region and those in the diaspora would not accept it either,” he said, adding, “ … but I can understand the anxiety of people who want to come home”.
Walters asked about the feasibility of having another airline fill in during the industrial action at LIAT.
Gonsalves noted the difficulties his government has faced over the last ten years trying to keep the cash-strapped airline in the air.
“… Many airlines have come and they have gone the way of all flesh. LIAT has survived for over 50 years – doesn’t meant that we don’t have the challenges,” he said.
He further said that these developments are tiring for the airline’s managers and shareholders.
“… when pilots go off like this, you create a lot of fatigue; people just get tired. Even the shareholders, even a man like me who, I am in the forefront in keeping LIAT in the sky and keeping and providing great leadership…” Gonsalves said.
“This kind of action, cannot be other than deplored. And that is what I am doing about it. And, I am urging, at the same time, the pilot to return. They know that the shareholders and the chairman of the shareholders, who is Ralph Gonsalves, that we are always sympathetic to the pilots but no individual and no set of individuals can be considered indispensible and to act in any manner in which they wish to act. We all have to deal with these matters in a reasonable way,” he said.
“The dismissal of Mr. Blackburn is not a policy matter. It is a management matter. What are you gonna go on strike for, on sickout for, to reinstate him? I mean that is not the remedy,” Gonsalves said.
LIAT said last night that would be providing information regarding the flights on Wednesday on its website at 5 that morning.