BWIA Requiem

 

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Category: Reflections 17 Sep 06

 

As of December 31, 2006 the life support plug will be pulled out of our massively subsidised national airline BWIA and a new airline, Caribbean Airlines will take its place.

 

As a requiem to BWIA, in the upcoming weeks, I will share with you the words of some BWIA personnel—a pilot, a member of ground staff, a former manager and a retiree.

 

Thousands of stories about the airline and its passengers of delays, botched bookings, Trini flight parties and overflowing baggage containing every imaginable object from the kitchen sink to kutchela circulate with a mixture of derision, humour and pride. Regionally, it has been affectionately dubbed “Better Walk If Able” and “But Will It Arrive?”

 

Good or bad, it’s been ours, with one of the best safety records in the world—not one passenger lost, not one plane down.

 

We can’t allow BWIA or the service of some 1,800 people to be made redundant, without leaving behind a lasting echo in our hearts.

 

This series begins with the voice of a 37-year-old employee who has worked for BWIA for 17 years.

 

“We are relieved. Finally, after years of being perpetually worried about our jobs, working in limbo, restructuring, re-branding, tightening our belts, a decision has been made and we can get on with our lives.

 

“My position falls under the Allied Caterers and Workers Union, which represents airport customer services representatives, ramp attendants, engineering and baggage handlers.

 

“The people keeping our aircraft airworthy have been treated the most shabbily. We haven’t had a collective agreement since 1998 while Calpa (the pilots union) and the superintendents union have enjoyed increases over the past eight years.

 

Can’t afford to fly free

 

“I’m the most senior in my department and my gross salary is $4,807 a month. There are people who have been working up to 27 years with that salary. For shift hours, you get an additional fee of $280. We have to pay mortgages, buy groceries and books on that. Students coming fresh out of school earn more.

 

“The public is not sympathetic to us because they assume we fly free around the world. But 56 per cent of us can’t afford to go abroad.

 

“While we were going through negotiations the company wanted to buy out our collective agreement and make us contract labour with no benefits for a 7.5 per cent increase over three years. We were going to have to pay for health, save for retirement ourselves. It’s insane.

 

“Every time it comes to a crunch we are told we are over staffed. Yet airport customer staff, baggage attendants and call centre personnel work overtime. In 2001, after a manpower planning exercise within the reservations department we hired more people.

 

“We have been asking repeatedly for a forensic audit that would reveal where we were haemorrhaging. It was never done.

 

“We believe management always knew they were going to close BWIA. That’s why negotiations were stalled. We are now negotiating our enhanced VSEP package, which will mean about $130,000 for people in my salary bracket. For management and senior staff it will amount to millions of dollars. I am not sure how these negotiations will turn out as we feel used because they want us to remain with them until December 31 to assist them with the transition to the new airline.

 

“The new company intends to hire 500 people. They want to reduce our fleet from nine to five aircraft. All BWIA staff has to do is reapply. We believe they will go the way of contract labour.

 

“I don’t believe in the viability of the new airline. I have given all to my company. I grew up here. I thought if I stayed I could make a difference. I’m hurt.”

 

Next week: View from the cockpit.

 

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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur