Nfld. & Labrador

All passenger flights temporarily resume at St. John's airport amid labour dispute

Passenger flights resumed at St. John's International Airport on Wednesday morning, after a labour dispute at its fire hall prevented many flights from landing or taking off.

Operations extended until Friday, leaving things up in the air for the weekend

Only cargo, medevac flights and planes with fewer than 19 seats could land at or depart from St. John's International Airport, pictured here, as of Tuesday, while Air Canada cancelled eight commercial flights Tuesday evening. All passenger flights resumed Wednesday. (CBC)

Passenger flights resumed at St. John's International Airport on Wednesday morning, after a labour dispute at its fire hall prevented many flights from landing or taking off.

The St. John's International Airport Authority says normal operations will continue until at least Friday 8 a.m. NT, as mediation talks between management and airport firefighters continue.

Premier Andrew Furey added in a tweet that both sides agreed on the extension.

Operations were shut down Tuesday, after most of the firefighters employed at the airport went on leave due to concerns over what they say is a toxic workplace.

The extension of operations until Friday is temporary, leaving things up in the air for the weekend.

Airport management and the union representing the firefighters met with with a federal mediator on Wednesday.

In a statement Wednesday night, the Union of Canadian Transportation Employees said it met with the mediator and management "all day" and "is willing to stay at the table as long as necessary to try and resolve the issues."

Eight flights were cancelled because of the interruption. 

Two union firefighters worked shifts on Wednesday, according to Chris Bussey, Atlantic vice-president of the UCTE, as the mediation took place. 

Bussey said neither firefighter is among those who have taken leave, and they're only covering off Wednesday's schedule.

Bussey said two firefighters on shift is the minimum needed for staffing the airport, but the union argues that number is low for an airport the size of St. John's International.

The problems that led to the interruption are not new, says the union.

"Instead of taking positive steps towards addressing the harm, the employer tried to do the bare minimum," UCTE said in its statement.

Solutions available, says airport CEO

Airport CEO Peter Avery says management is working to find a permanent fix to the staffing shortage. He said seven of the nine firefighters were not available to work Wednesday.

"We have every available resource working on ways to resolve this issue," Avery told the media Wednesday. He said there has been significant focus on addressing the fire staff's previous concerns, including changes being made after an independent investigator filed a report on workplace complaints.

"A safe and secure working environment is absolutely essential, and we will ensure that that is what we will provide," he said.

Avery said the report will not be made public, citing privacy and there's zero tolerance for a toxic work environment. 

The UCTE alleges that airport management haven't "addressed the result of the investigation directly with the impacted firefighters."

Peter Avery, CEO of the St. John's International Airport Authority, says he needs the union's support to bring in additional firefighters. (Eddy Kennedy/CBC)

The airport is working closely with Transport Canada to source additional firefighters locally, nationally and internationally to keep the essential service running, Avery said.

He said he believes firefighters are available if needed, but wants the union's support in bringing them to St. John's.

"We believe there are solutions, but we need the union's support," Avery said. 

Some flights diverted

Shortly before the news broke of the airport's operations temporarily resuming Wednesday, Premier Andrew Furey told CBC News there were plans to divert some flights to Gander, about 330 kilometres from St. John's.

Reg Wright, CEO of the Gander International Airport Authority, said his airport was asked to accommodate five flights on Wednesday — three from Air Canada and two from PAL Airlines. He said there has been no further discussion on the rest of the week. 

 "If it does extend, we're fully prepared to play a role in getting people home. But I don't imagine it will be long," Wright said.

In a statement to CBC News, WestJet said its operations are set to resume in St. John's on Thursday, with Flight 3428 from Halifax landing in St. John's shortly after 10 a.m.

As for getting those passengers to St. John's from Gander on Wednesday, Wright said the airlines will have those details, but added there will likely be a bus.

Maggie Brown-Bury, a veterinarian from St. John's, hopes her plans to return home from Labrador City on Saturday will go ahead. (Meg Roberts/CBC)

For passengers, the temporary fix still leaves their plans under a cloud of uncertainty. 

Maggie Brown-Bury, a veterinarian from St. John's working in Labrador City, is supposed to return home  Saturday. Regardless of the temporary solution announced on Wednesday, Brown-Bury said, she's worried about her travel plans. 

"It's not clear that this temporary solution is going to be something that can work long term," Brown-Bury told CBC News on Wednesday afternoon. "And how long is it going to take them to get to a resolution?" 

Brown-Bury said she understands the situation but won't be convinced her flight home will happen until she's sitting in her seat. 

Airport under federal jurisdiction

Furey said the provincial government became aware of the deteriorating staffing situation late Saturday night, and he called federal Transport Minister Omar Alghabra on Sunday, since the airport is under federal jurisdiction.

Furey said the provincial Department of Tourism has been in contact with airlines.

In a statement released late Tuesday night, Alghabra called the consequences of the staffing issues "completely unacceptable."

He said the union and the airport "must take any necessary steps to find a solution that will keep operations ongoing and safe."

Alghabra said the department will continue to monitor the situation.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from The St. John's Morning Show

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