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Flashback March 2020: CAL pilots leave the departure lounge at the Piarco International Airport after returning from a flight.

SHARLENE RAMPERSAD

[email protected]

A letter sent by Caribbean Airline’s (CAL’s) vice-president of Human Resources to the chairman of the union representing the airline’s pilots, has revealed CAL is planning to send home between 95 and 115 pilots in its planned retrenchment exercise.

That represents around 46 per cent of the airline’s to 252 pilots.

The letter was sent to the Trinidad and Tobago Pilots’ Association (TTALPA) by Roger Berkeley yesterday, addressed to TTALPA’s chairman, Captain Larry Imamshah.

The letter referenced discussions between the two parties on Tuesday and the announcement made by CAL’s chief executive officer, Garvin Medera, on Monday, that the airline will be retrenching 25 per cent, or approximately 450 members of staff, after suffering a $172 million loss in the first quarter of 2021.

“This is, as indicated by the CEO, based on a revision of the strategic plan, supported with industry expertise, which proposed decrease in the aircraft fleet to match reduced passenger demand among other initiatives. While the final numbers have not yet been determined, a reduction in the fleet would potentially lead to a reduction in the pilot body of between 95-115 persons,” Berkeley wrote in his letter yesterday.

He went on to invite TTALPA, the recognised majority union, to consultations, asking whether these can begin as early as tomorrow.

“The company is fully aware of the impact that this announcement can have on our team members and is committed to working with the union to ensure that the process is conducted respectfully and in the best interest of all parties,” Berkeley said.

Guardian Media sent a copy of the letter to CAL’s corporate communications manager, Dionne Ligoure, last evening.

Ligoure was asked whether she could confirm the authenticity of the letter.

She responded, “A letter was sent to the union as part of the process of consultation.”

Ligoure was also asked whether the retrenchment exercise would include CAL’s staff in Jamaica and Guyana.

“Yes. As these jurisdictions form part of the network referred to,” she said.

Ligoure said the airline employs 233 people in Jamaica and 63 people in Guyana.

Ligoure was also asked how many pilots CAL employs and confirmed it was 252.

Guardian Media also sent a copy to TTALPA’s executive administrator Shelly Sadaphal, who said, “It was sent to TTALPA earlier today, yes.”

Asked to comment on the move to retrench so many pilots, Sadaphal said the union is not yet prepared to comment.

CAL pilot shocked

One CAL pilot whose job may now be in danger, told Guardian Media he was shocked that the airline would send home so many pilots.

The pilot, who spoke under the condition of strict anonymity, seemed at a loss for words when he was told of the contents of the letter between CAL and TTALPA.

He said he has been trying to keep himself busy over the last few days so he does not dwell on the impending retrenchment.

“That is a big surprise…I don’t know what to say, I am in a bit of shock, I didn’t know it was going to be so many. I thought when they said 25 per cent of staff, I thought it was going to be, worse case scenario for the pilots, would be significantly less than that figure you quoted,” he said.

He said TTALPA has often been slow to pass on communication from the airline to its members and many currently learn about the ongoings of the restructuring exercise via the media.

The pilot said there was also some controversy within the union, as junior members felt they were being sacrificed to keep long-standing members.

“Sometimes they (TTALPA) would be trying to make deals that they don’t tell us about. There are some pilots that are over 60, pilots are allowed to work until 65, but you would retire at 60 and come back on contract until you are 65. There was a bit of controversy with that, because the argument was why not let the younger pilots who are qualified stay on because they have a lot more years than these guys who may only have two or three more years left?”

He said pilots had taken a 57 per cent reduction in salaries since last year, in the hope that the airline would be able to keep on all their employees.

He said if his name ends up on the retrenchment list, there are no opportunities for employment in Trinidad and Tobago.

“You have to go elsewhere. If so many pilots are going home in Trinidad, there really aren’t any options in Trinidad, you have to go to, if you have documents, to the US because right now, American Airlines has a shortage of pilots because they did the same thing, they sent everyone home and now they realise that the demand has increased beyond what they predicted and now, they are struggling to find pilots, they have to cancel flights.”

He also questioned why the airline did not adopt a wait-and-see approach, as the COVID-19 pandemic is novel to the aviation industry.

“The borders have not even opened yet, all we are going on are predictions and the thing is, we have never experienced something like this before, especially in aviation, so how do you know if your predictions are actually accurate? There is no way to tell.”

Finance Minister Colm Imbert has said CAL’s decisions were based on data from the International Air Transport Association (IATA), which predicts losses of US$47.7 billion in the global airline industry in 2021.

The pilot, however, said he believes the decisions were premature.

“Every one will start suffering when they have these reductions. There are people who haven’t seen their families for so long and when they open the borders, people are going to want to come to see their families, you are not going to have enough flights and I don’t think they have even thought about Carnival next year, it seems the Government has tunnel vision with the airline.”

He believes the airline could actually save money if it keeps its staff and made a decision based on actual flight data at the end of the year.

He explained that when pilots are not active, they must undergo a thorough retraining exercise which he said can be very costly.

“If you are active, you have a retraining programme every six months, but that lasts for three days. If you are not active and let’s say they decide to rehire the pilots, the training is much more comprehensive, you have to complete a two-week course and then other training exercises, all of which the airline will have to foot the bill for.”

He said with this retrenchment exercise, the airline will have to spend a significant amount of money providing counselling for pilots as well.

“In other parts of the world where pilots have gone home, there have been some who have committed suicide…when you are doing a job like this and you are dedicated to your profession, you are trained to do this particular job and someone tells you all of a sudden that you are going home, I don’t know if these systems they have in place would be able to handle it.”

On Tuesday, while responding to questions in the Senate, Finance Minister Imbert said the State would foot the bill for CAL’s retrenchment exercise, at an estimated cost of $110 million.

Paray calls for CAL review

Opposition Member of Parliament for Mayaro Rushton Paray, says the Government must review the operations of state-owned Caribbean Airlines (CAL) and rescind its decision to retrench 450 workers.

In a release yesterday, Paray accused Finance Minister, Colm Imbert of being “penny wise and a pound foolish.”

“Mr Imbert’s decision is near-sighted and knee-jerk because international aviation experts are projecting an almost full recovery in air travel after the COVID-19 pandemic. The knowledgeable officials have referred to resurgences after previous industry shocks, and reported that total recoveries took place in just over six months,” Paray said.

He said experts have also pointed out that industrial production in several countries have already returned to pre-pandemic levels and successful airlines are using modern technology, innovation and efficiencies to drive operating costs down.

Paray said the “premature decision” to retrench staff will cost taxpayers $110 million, as announced by Imbert on the Senate on Tuesday.

“A more prudent economic decision would be to retain the trained 450 workers and to work diligently at restructuring CAL’s operations in order to successfully navigate the crisis. Top airlines around the world are investing in marketing their destinations, reviewing fares, boosting customer experience and other business dynamics.”

Paray said CAL must recognise its employees are its most valuable asset and labour costs should not be the first to be reduced.