Manitoba's Southern Air Ambulance transport program has been grounded due to a lack of pilots and the union blames the province's plan to privatize the government's air services branch.

The service provides air transportation to patients in southern Manitoba where overland transportation would take more than 2.5 hours.

A spokesperson for the Manitoba government says there are not enough pilots right now.

"Recruiting qualified pilots to transport patients can be challenging, and the program is currently paused because of a lack of qualified pilots. Manitobans can still access inter-facility transports by land ambulance at no cost to patients," a spokesperson for the province said.

According to a document obtained by CBC News this past April, the Progressive Conservative government intends to outsource the service to private carriers licensed with the province.

The PC government is also looking into privatizing all of the province's Air Services branch.

Qualified pilots are looking elsewhere because they are unsure if the government will continue to operate the Southern Air Service in the future, says Manitoba Government Employees' Union president Michelle Gawronsky.The union represents pilots, attendants and ground staff for the air ambulance service.

Southern Air Service

Manitoba government says patients in southern region of province who require extended transportation must take ground ambulances (Province of Manitoba)

"Some of the pilots have said they are starting to apply [at] Air Canada...because they are uncertain where they are going to be left; if they have a job at all," Gawronsky says, adding the suspension of Southern Air Ambulance is a direct result of the government not hiring new pilots as positions became available. 

"I challenge them to fill the positions that have been open for a couple of years. The pilots themselves have told me how many positions have been open," says MGEU president Michelle Gawronsky.

Southern Air Ambulance was set up to protect patients who may not be physically able to make a long trip in a conventional ambulance.

The description of Southern Air Ambulance on Manitoba Health's website says: "This program is intended to reduce the stress on patients for whom long road transports create a health risk. The program also reduces the risk to paramedics from extended travel times and the time that ambulances are out of a community and unavailable for local emergency response." 

The province says emergency services are not effected. The STARS helicopter flights and Lifeflight Air Ambulance Services are operating as usual.

Michelle Gawronsky

MGEU president Michelle Gawronsky says the government "starved" Southern Air Ambulance by not hiring pilots for over two years. (CBC News )

Gawronsky also says the suspension of the service will affect paramedics who are now required to drive patients long distances who are normally transported by air.

"The paramedics contacted me this morning. They are quite worried about this. We know right now there is a minimum of 400 paramedics short for rural Manitoba...if they are now going to add transfers that have to be done through Southern [Air Ambulance], that's going to compound the problem," Gawronsky says.