Manitoba government contemplates privatizing province-run air ambulances, water bombers

Documents obtained by CBC News show the Pallister government intends to issue an expression of interest to determine whether a private air carrier is willing to take over the province's air services branch.

Confidential documents show PCs are interested in privatizing government's air services branch

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

The Pallister government is looking into the possibility of privatizing the province's air services branch, the agency responsible for maintaining and co-ordinating the public fleet of air ambulances and water bombers.

A confidential document obtained by CBC News reveals the province recently gave Manitoba Health the green light to issue an expression of interest "in order to determine marketplace interest and capability to provide, in full or in part, services currently provided by the Air Services Branch."

Currently, the province owns, maintains and operates a fleet of 22 aircraft throughout the province, which collectively provide air ambulance services for remote communities, inter-hospital transportation, wildfire suppression and general transport for government officials and Manitoba Hydro workers.
The inside of a Lifeflight air ambulance, which will now be overseen by Shared Health Services, rather than the province. (Government of Manitoba)

The 91 employees at the branch are also responsible for co-ordinating charters and administrative tasks such as billing for the use of private sector aircraft currently contracted by the government for inter-facility air ambulance transport from northern communities.

The Treasury Board notes in the document that all but one of these services are to fall under the expression of interest.

The Southern Air Ambulance inter-facility transport program, which provides inter-facility transportation to patients in southern Manitoba where land transportation would take more than 2.5 hours, is not part of the expression of interest because the Department of Health is already working on outsourcing this service to private carriers licensed with the province, the document says.

A spokesperson for Health Minister Kelvin Goertzen said the expression of interest is currently being developed, but has yet to be issued.

"Continuing in our commitment to open, transparent procurement practices and in an effort to achieve maximum value for taxpayer dollars, I can confirm that we are preparing an expression of interest related to air services currently provided by the Manitoba government," said press secretary Amy McGuinness.

The document further instructs officials to report back on the expression of interest by Aug. 1, 2017, with recommendations on whether to proceed with a request for proposals from private carriers.

91 employees would be affected

In last year's budget documents, the air services branch expected to spend about $9.6 million on salaries and benefits, and around $19.2 million on costs related to equipment and interest as well investments in new capital assets.

When accounting for other internal sources of revenue and recoveries, the total cost to run air services operations was expected to be just under $13 million.

Last year, the air services branch had a full-time equivalent staff of 43 pilots, 33 mechanics and engineers and 15 administrative personnel, financial reports say.
The air services branch is responsible for maintaining and co-ordinating the public fleet of water bombers, like those seen here, and air ambulances. (Royal Aviation Museum of Western Canada)

'Didn't know this was coming': Union

"I can't even begin to imagine how our members are feeling right now. They walked into work on a Monday morning, getting ready to just continue doing what they're doing, saving lives and making sure people are safe, to now sit there and wonder where are they going to be left," MGEU president Michelle Gawronsky said. 

"The PC party made it very, very clear that they were going to keep public services public, no intention on privatizing. In fact, they even gave our members a written commitment that if elected, they would keep public services public," she said.

After learning about the expression of interest through CBC News, the MGEU sent a letter to PC cabinet ministers expressing concern that the government is proceeding in a manner that violates a memorandum of agreement in the overall collective agreement that requires consultation with the union prior to engaging in plans to modify a public service.

The Opposition New Democrats said as far as they are aware, there have been no consultations to date regarding the possible privatization of air services.

"I guess we can say we're not surprised," said NDP health critic Matt Wiebe. "This is par for the course. That privatization is an attack on front-line workers."

Wiebe said people he's spoken with who live in remote areas of the province already have concerns about the current government-run services and he fears this could make the situation worse.

Air services branch by the numbers

Province-owned aircraft fleet:

  • 11 water bombers (five older models to be retired soon).
  • Three Cessna T310 birddogs​.
  • Three DHC-3 Single Otters.
  • Two DHC-6 Twin Otters.
  • Two Cessna Citation Jets.
  • One Piper PA-31 Navajo.

Province-owned aircraft use in 2015-16*

  • Total flight hours: 5,091.
  • Total distance flown: 1,361,000 kilometres.
  • Total passengers: 13,453.
  • Total freight: 395,000 kilograms.
  • Total water bombing drops: 4,874.
  • Total out-of-province air ambulance transfers: 81.

​*These figures do not include private charters arranged by the air services branch. In 2015-16, the branch co-ordinated 861 government charters with private-sector carriers. An additional unknown number of private carriers were hired to support air ambulance services.

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Memorandum of agreement in the MGEU collective agreement

Letter sent by the MGEU to PC cabinet ministers

With files from Katie Nicholson