ST JOHN’S, Antigua – Unions representing all non-management staff at regional airline LIAT weren’t overtly calling for resignations or firings at the top yesterday as they had done in the past, but they were demanding an immediate reinstatement of one of their own – Chairman of Leeward Islands Airline Pilots Association (LIALPA) Michael Blackburn, who was fired on Monday.
Captain Blackburn was fired with immediate effect, prompting a sickout by all his fellow cockpit crew and cancellation of all trips for the entire day, an estimated 110 flights system-wide.
The LIAT unions issued an ultimatum in a letter that threatened full-on revolt by all unionised staff if the pilot was not immediately called back to duty.
“The regional unions demand an immediate and complete withdrawal of the letter of termination and the full reinstatement of Captain Michael Blackburn … We are prepared to take any and all actions necessary to achieve this objective and the pilots are assured of our collective solidarity,” said the letter, which was sent by the head of the coalition of unions, Chester Humphrey.
The coalition is comprised of the Grenada Technical & Allied Workers Union, the Waterfront & Allied Workers Union, the Antigua & Barbuda Workers Union (ABWU), the National Workers Union, LIAT Workers Union, Barbados Workers Union, LIALPA, LIAEA, LIFA and the Management Staff Association.
The ultimatum, sent to LIAT CEO Brian Challenger, followed hastily arranged talks among the unions.
“It is with deep shock and consternation that LIAT unions throughout the region have learnt of the unfair termination of the employment contract of Captain Michael Blackburn,” the letter began.
The word “unfair” was used because the unions have maintained that established procedure for dismissing an employee wasn’t followed and Humphrey’s letter described the move as “a thin veil for anti-union activities” and “an attack on all unions within LIAT.”
The letter even goes as far as to question the competence of the management to run the carrier and said that safety considerations, which are part of Blackburn’s recent criticism of the airline, are even now being examined by the labour commissioner.
In its press statement yesterday, the union in the middle of the entire impasse, LIALPA, condemned what it called the unprecedented firing of its chairman for speaking in his capacity as chairman and said that Captain Blackburn did not get his mandatory chance to confirm or deny the charges against him.
ABWU, through David Massiah its general Secretary, confirmed full support for the call by the unions.
“The Antigua & Barbuda Workers Union cannot condone such wanton misuse of executive powers. In this light, we fully support the actions of the pilots. We stand ready to call on the departments that we represent to stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in this matter,” he said.
LIAT management has consistently denied Blackburn’s suggestion that LIAT is not as safe now as it had been.
The company’s releases yesterday, however, were confined to apologising to passengers for the system-wide flight cancellations and information on what they can do to reschedule their trips.
LIAT said it was allowing all customers affected by the disruptions to rebook without charge for a period of one week from the date of their original scheduled travel, and passengers who are unable to fly as planned due to the industrial action will be issued full credit for future travel, issued at customers’ requests. Affected passengers are also being advised to contact LIAT reservations before going to the airport when services resume.
Up to press time there was no sign of resolution, so the pilots are expected to be away from their posts again today.
It wasn’t clear how much time the other unions would give the airline to avoid “all actions necessary to” get Blackburn back his job.
Meantime, the sickout action by LIAT pilots has left a sour feeling with hundreds of passengers who have had their travel plans ruined.
One British visitor to Antigua, who preferred not to give his name, told The Daily OBSERVER the interruption has put a damper on his vacation plans. The UK man said he had just spent three nights in Antigua with his wife as part of a two-part holiday.
“We were due to fly to Barbados this morning (Tuesday) for the rest of our holiday which was supposed to last a week. We turned up to the airport on time, but found out the flights aren’t running,” the visitor said.
“We are only over here in the Caribbean for a limited time so it’s all a bit disappointing for us and we have no other means of getting to Barbados,” he added.
The visitor said the biggest concern he had was that neither LIAT nor the travel agency he books with or his travel insurance were offering compensation for meals and accommodations.
A release from LIAT noted that “passengers who decide to travel but are unable to complete their journey due to the disruption will not be provided with meals, transportation or hotel accommodation.”
(More in today’s Daily OBSERVER)