LIAT and the Leeward Islands Airline Pilots Association (LIALPA) have called a truce, agreeing that the injunction imposed on pilots two months ago will be lifted and that their longstanding dispute will go to arbitration for settlement by September 30.
The news came as the Antigua-based airline reported US $535,000 (EC $1.4 million) in disruptions costs resulting from flight delays and cancellations this month alone.
The two sides, whose dispute in recent months has seen them levelling accusations at each other, agreed to ?a fresh start? during a meeting in St Vincent yesterday, convened by leaders of the shareholder governments ? Dr Ralph Gonsalves of St Vincent & the Grenadines, Baldwin Spencer of Antigua & Barbuda and David Thompson of Barbados ? to prevent a crisis at the regional airline.
Officials of the other nine unions representing LIAT workers also attended the meeting, but the problems between LIALPA and the airline dominated the discussions. It was revealed by host Prime Minister Gonsalves that the union will not have to challenge the injunction imposed at LIAT?s request, by the Antigua & Barbuda Industrial Court, on May 22 after some of the pilots staged a sick-out.
They had been scheduled to go to court this Thursday.
?Circumstances would revert to before there was the injunction. The injunction will be lifted on the 30th because that was the date when they were to return to court,? Gonsalves said. ?There has been a declaration of peace?There will be peace, perfect peace.?
Making it clear that the two sides would keep their discussions away from the media spotlight, the Vincentian leader said they all agreed that they would ?cease any guerilla tactics by going to the press in some unattributed way and have a story out.?
He added that they would also establish a new mechanism to resolve inadequate communication between management and the unions.
?I think we are seeing the commencement of a fresh start, a partnership between LIAT?s management and all the stakeholders including the pilots? association,? he said.
Before the injunction is lifted, LIAT and the pilots will start taking the necessary steps to go to arbitration to settle their dispute.
The first step is to submit all the issues relating to the pilots to binding arbitration. Those matters will be detailed tomorrow morning in Barbados.
?We?re not starting with a fresh slate because there had been some negotiations before. It is a question of itemising all the issues that will go to arbitration,? Gonsalves said.
The arbitration panel will be chaired by retired Barbadian jurist Leroy Inniss QC. LIAT?s management and LIALPA will each have a representative on the panel. While the union has already revealed its choice as Captain Desmond Ross, the name of the former pilot whom LIAT has selected has not been released.
?This arbitration takes place within the framework of the law of Antigua & Barbuda and there will be a final report by the arbitration panel on or before September 30. It is a matter of some urgency,? Gonsalves said.
LIALPA Chairman Captain Michael Blackburn, who had to take a break from his holiday in New York to attend the meeting, said he was glad to see both sides now on the right track.
?I have in the past advocated arbitration and it?s now a reality and I?m hoping that we can move into the arbitration process with expedition and resolution so that LIAT can move forward ? I?m very optimistic and upbeat,? he said. ?It?s been a long time in coming, the pilots have felt we have been at the bottom of the barrel for a long time and we will clearly hope we can adjust the situation.?
On the issue of the injunction which LIALPA was strongly opposed to, Blackburn added: ?I hope that the lesson has been learned. It is a victory for workers in the Caribbean that you cannot force people in this day and age to be happy. If you take away basic rights to withdraw my labour then I will not be happy and an unhappy worker is an unproductive worker.?
LIAT?s acting Chief Executive Officer Brian Challenger and Chairman Dr Jean Holder, who described the meeting as historic, expressed similar hope that the matters can be resolved and pledged the commitment of the airline?s executive and management.
Prime Minister Gonsalves also disclosed that a forensic financial audit would be conducted of LIAT, saying that ?it would be very good as we are moving forward with this fresh start to put our markers down.?