Union president slams government proposal to privatize air ambulance, water bomber service

The Manitoba Government and General Employees' Union is accusing the Manitoba government of "putting a price tag on Manitobans" with a proposed plan to privatize the province's air services — including fire suppression and air ambulances.

Province says review shows air services aren't being used to full capacity

The Manitoba government has taken another step toward privatizing its air services, including including fire suppression services and air ambulances. (Manitoba Conservation Officers Association/Facebook)

The Manitoba Government and General Employees' Union is accusing the Manitoba government of "putting a price tag on Manitobans" with a proposed plan to privatize the province's air services — including fire suppression and air ambulances.

Government Air Services employees were told Friday the province has taken another step toward turning the services offered by the branch over to the private sector and leasing out the province's water bombers.

A request for proposals was issued by the province on Friday calling for proposals for private operation of 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.

"Our skilled members at Manitoba Government Air Services provide an essential, life-saving public service to Manitobans, getting critically ill patients to hospitals and protecting communities from forest fires," said MGEU president Michelle Gawronsky at a press conference Friday.

"These essential services should not be auctioned off as profit opportunities for private airline corporations."

MGEU president Michelle Gawronsky is critical of the Manitoba government's plan to privatize its air services. (CBC)

The service's Lifeflight provides air ambulance services to remote communities and inter-provincial trips for things like organ transplants and cardiac services.

The air service also provides fire suppression using water bombers and surveillance, flies Manitoba Hydro crews to northern work sites and provides flights for government officials, including judges.

Request for proposals 

The plan worries Gawronsky.

She said private companies that may end up leasing the province's water bombers could also end up taking contracts with other provinces, meaning the bombers could be in use elsewhere when needed here.

"They could be sitting over in B.C. or Alberta, fighting a fire there," she said.

"Water bomber services should be based on the needs of Manitobans, not the bottom line of a private airline."

The inside of a Lifeflight air ambulance, which will now be overseen by Shared Health Services, rather than the province. (Government of Manitoba)

In a statement to CBC News, Manitoba Infrastructure Minister Ron Schuler said the request for proposals addresses that.

"This RFP requires water bombers to be dedicated and ready during the Manitoba fire season, and that those aircraft would be able to operate in specified regions that Manitoba has agreements with," the minister said the statement.

"In the event that the government decides to proceed with allowing the private sector to take over this portion of air services, these aircraft may be leased to a successful proponent, with Manitoba retaining ownership of the aircraft."

Gawronsky said the union's roughly 70 members who work with air services were not told what will happen to their jobs if the equipment is sold and leased out.

"They are pilots, aircraft maintenance engineers and logistical support staff who make sure these planes get to patients and communities when they're needed most," she said, calling on the government to release details on how much money the move will save.

"Somebody has to show me as a taxpayer, as a Manitoban, how is this in the best interest of Manitobans."

'Not just about saving money'

In his statement, Schuler said the government "will work together with all staff to ensure a smooth and orderly transition when the RFP is awarded.

"Our government is bound by all collective agreements and we respect the employees in this process," he said.

Schuler didn't comment on the potential savings for the province, but did say the move is about more than money.

Minister of Infrastructure Ron Schuler says a move to privatize the province's air services comes after a review found the branch isn't being used to its full capacity. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

He said a department review showed the air services branch isn't being used to its full capacity and more consistent service would be possible if services were contracted out and the assets sold.

He added roughly half of government air services are already privately operated.

"This is about assuring and developing a plan that includes properly staffed, consistent air service that is safe and secure for when Manitobans need it," Schuler said in the statement.

"Make no mistake, our government's top priority is ensuring that safety and service standards remain high and that these vital services remain at the ready when Manitobans need them."