Manitoba

Request for proposals to privatize Manitoba air services is 'smart shopping': Infrastructure minister

Manitoba won't follow through on a recently released request for proposals to privatize provincial air services unless an applicant can guarantee it will provide services that are as good or better than current options — and at a better price, Infrastructure Minister Ron Schuler says.

Province won't award contract unless applicant can maintain safety, service and save money: Schuler

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

Manitoba won't follow through on a recent request for proposals to privatize provincial air services unless an applicant can guarantee it will provide services that are as good or better than current options — and at a better price, Infrastructure Minister Ron Schuler says.

"It's not untoward for the government of Manitoba to currently check to see if they're getting the best price for what they're doing," Schuler told reporters on Thursday, describing the process as "smart shopping."

"Let's see if we can get a better price and if we're getting a really good price right now, well, we're going to find that out as well."

The province issued a request for proposals earlier this month to privatize the air service's Lifeflight air ambulance and general transport services.

The plan would also see the province lease out its 11 water bombers — including four new aircraft purchased for $126 million in 2010 — to the private sector.

Schuler says roughly half of the province's air services, including air ambulances, are already in the hands of private operators. Those services are not included in the July request for proposals.

Infrastructure Minister Ron Schuler says the province will only move forward with privatization if it can get service that's just as good at a better price. (Walther Bernal/CBC)

The Manitoba Government and General Employees Union, which represents 70 provincial pilots, has publicly slammed the move.

On Thursday, the union presented a report it commissioned that said privatization wouldn't likely save Manitobans money, and could mean reduced service quality.

"Simply put, privatizing Lifeflight and fire suppression will reduce the quality and speed of lifesaving emergency services to rule in northern Manitoba," union president Michelle Gawronsky said.

"Today, we once again ask the government to withdraw their proposal to privatize these vital public emergency services."

Concerns about northern access

The union's report, done by Winnipeg-based consultants Breakwater Group, says that according to Transport Canada guidelines, for-profit operators aren't allowed to land on some of the shorter, gravel runways in some northern Manitoba communities.

"A company that's operating for profit, they have to be able to land the jet in 60 per cent of the runway distance. And that's just not possible on the small gravel runways when they're operating for profit," said Jennifer Keith, a co-author of the report.

A union spokesperson said 17 communities have gravel runways that would prevent air ambulance services if they were offered by private companies.

Schuler says any applicants would have to take those regulations into account, and ensure services aren't compromised.

"That's something that they have to work out with the federal government," he said. "If they can't get that permission, then it would retain as a government of Manitoba service."

Schuler says the request for proposals will close in a few weeks, and submissions will go through a "robust process" before the government makes a decision, though he had no idea how long that might take.

"If it can't be done, well, we've got a very good system right now and we'll know," he said. "We'll know that this is the best system we have."

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