Manitoba government takes another step toward possibility of privatizing air service with RFP for consultant

Manitoba's Progressive Conservative government is digging deeper into the possibility of privatizing provincial air services.

No decision made yet on privatizing wildfire suppression, air ambulance services, says infrastructure minister

The Manitoba air services branch owns and operates 22 aircraft. (Google)

Manitoba's Progressive Conservative government is digging deeper into the possibility of privatizing provincial air services.

On Tuesday, Infrastructure Minister Ron Schuler said the province has issued a request for proposals for a consultant to help draft another RFP for a private carrier that could provide wildfire suppression and air ambulance services.

Those services are currently run by the Manitoba Government Air Services Branch.

"What we are looking for today — and it's on [the government tendering service] MERX — is someone to help us put together that RFP," Schuler told reporters Tuesday.

The move is the second step in a three-step process that would take place before privatizing the Air Services Branch, which Schuler said could get Manitobans better value-for-money.

The first was an expression of interest that went out in 2017 "in order to determine marketplace interest and capability to provide, in full or in part, services currently provided by the Air Services Branch."

The final step would be drafting the request for proposals for the private providers themselves.

"I want to be very clear: nothing is changing. Business as usual. No decision has been made. The airplanes are going to continue to fly," Schuler said.

The government has been exploring the possibility of privatization for months, and referred to the new RFP in its 2018 budget speech. Schuler said six parties responded to the expression of interest last year.

The 91 provincial employees who would be affected by the change were notified Tuesday, he said — but the government has not yet made up its mind either way on privatizing the air service.

"We are just going to test this. This is not ideology. This is, 'Can we get a way better value for the taxpayers?'" Schuler said.

Privatization likely won't save money: MGEU​

A spokesperson for the union representing the province's pilots said he's not convinced the province would save money on the switch, and he said the province shouldn't look for savings on a life-saving service.

"Once you have private airline companies in there, they're also concerned about delivering profits to shareholders," said Jean-Guy Bourgeois, director of internal operations for the Manitoba Government and General Employees' Union.

"When the question comes, say, in a heavy forest-fire year and profits are threatened, I don't want to be in the position of having to ask the question, 'Are they making that decision based on the needs of the communities, or on the basis of the needs of their shareholders?'"

If the province chooses privatization, Schuler said current employees would likely be able to find work in the private sector.

The Air Services Branch, which is responsible for a fleet of 22 government-owned aircraft, already uses private carriers for nearly 50 per cent of its services, Schuler said. The fleet also provides some general transportation, including flights needed by Manitoba Hydro.

He dismissed concerns that a private provider would be less safe. Any request for proposals seeking a private provider would require the new services be at least as good as existing ones, he said.

"We will make sure that safety is foremost on our RFP," he said.

With files from Sean Kavanagh and Aidan Geary