The majority owners of Stobart Air - its 450 staff - have been left in the dark amid a series of complex deals over the past 14 months that culminated this week in an agreement to sell 49pc of the business.
In the past number of weeks, Stobart Air, the Aer Lingus Regional operator, had all the looks of being just another Covid-19 victim. But the foundations of the Dublin-based carrier's woes were laid long before the current crisis unfolded, and staff are now looking for some answers.
First, let's take a short trip down memory lane, to 18 months ago.
In late 2018, UK regional carrier Flybe was floundering. Haemorrhaging cash, it was on a crash course. It put itself up for sale, hoping a white knight would emerge before its precarious position became irretrievable.
The rescuer did emerge, in the shape of Stobart Air's then sole owner, the UK stock market-listed Stobart Group.
It spied an opportunity. Lash together Stobart Air and a related aircraft leasing vehicle, Propius, with Flybe in a holding company and get other backers on board to create a regional carrier group. The plan took off.
So in early 2019, a UK holding company was formed, Connect Airways, and a deal struck to acquire Flybe and its website for just £2.8m (€3.2m). Virgin Travel Group, a subsidiary of Richard Branson-founded Virgin Atlantic, took a 30pc stake in Connect, while a unit of US firm Cyrus Capital Partners owns 40pc.
The deal valued Stobart Air and its Propius leasing unit at about £40m.
There were other factors at play at this time too that would eventually result in Stobart Group having liabilities to the tune of $100m (€93m) connected to Stobart Air.
Not such a big deal then, perhaps, when things were booming and aviation growing, but important just a year later when the coronavirus saw the economy implode.
In the meantime, the acquisition of Flybe still needed EU clearance. The commission gave the tie-up a derogation until such clearance was secured.
But it meant that Flybe needed cash without its new owners having full visibility on its seriously challenged operating position. The new owners agreed to pump £100m into Flybe, and EU clearance wasn't received until July last year. Flybe would collapse just seven months later.
Just around the time it was engineering the Flybe deal in February last year, Stobart Group had something else to contend with.
With the planned Brexit date of March 29 approaching in 2019, it had a problem.
Despite being based in Dublin, Stobart Air was owned and controlled by Stobart Group, a UK company. But EU rules mean that any European Union airline must be majority owned and controlled by EU nationals. The UK was leaving the trading bloc. A solution was needed. Stobart Group hatched what seemed like a convenient plan that would prevent Stobart Air also having to seek an aircraft operator's licence in the UK: hand a 51pc stake of the airline to the carrier's 450 staff.
The apparently simple fix - without staff having to pay for it - meant that Stobart Air would remain in compliance with EU rules. You'd think employees would be elated.
A free stake. There must have been champagne corks popped; some maybe even dared dream of early retirement. After all, here they were, getting a 51pc share of a firm they worked for and which in its 2018 financial year had generated revenues of €144.6m and a €3.3m pre-tax profit.
But it appears they never even knew they'd been handed the windfall shares. Had they known it was happening, they might have undertaken their own due diligence, secured legal, union and other advice. One staff member the Irish Independent spoke to this week said the first they knew that employees owned a 51pc stake was when they read it in a newspaper earlier this year, 12 months after the transfer.
Stobart Air declined to comment yesterday on whether staff had been notified at the time the deal was done.
Even if staff had been made aware early in 2018 that they owned the stake, there's another significant issue: the trustees of the employee benefit trust have apparently never communicated anything to the staff about their beneficial interest in the airline in the past 14 months. No updates on the company's performance, or raising issues they should be aware of - all the more critical, you'd think, at a time when the aviation industry is in free fall and Stobart Air itself has been toying with the idea of examinership.
The trustees, by the way, are Warwick Brady, a former Ryanair and EasyJet executive who's CEO of Stobart Group, and Alastair Purdy, a Galway-based solicitor.
The Irish Air Line Pilots' Association (IALPA), which represents a majority of the pilots at Stobart Air, wrote to Mr Purdy earlier this month.
In the letter, seen by the Irish Independent, the union asked him to provide an account of his stewardship of the trust since its inception, and also expressed concern that IALPA members have received no communication from the trust regarding its establishment or its benefits for employees.
Contacted yesterday by the Irish Independent with similar questions, Mr Purdy did not respond.
The staff shareholding becomes a focal point now because Stobart Group has just agreed to buy a 49pc stake in flailing Stobart Air from EY, the accountancy firm that's the administrator of Connect Airways following the collapse of Flybe in February.
Because of those $100m in liabilities mentioned earlier, Stobart Group's hand has been forced. If Stobart Air fell into examinership, the liabilities would effectively crystallise. Buying the stake buys the group time. Not much perhaps, and to what end?
Because if Stobart Air staff really do own and control 51pc of the airline, there's little Stobart Group can do without agreeing something with them first. At least, you'd be forgiven for thinking so.
The Commission for Aviation Regulation told the Irish Independent yesterday that it's satisfied Stobart Air meets EU ownership and control criteria - meaning the regulator is happy that staff do indeed own and control 51pc of the airline.
"Any other enquiries should be made to the air carrier," it insisted, when asked if Stobart Air staff were made aware last year they were being handed a share. For staff, the apparent lack of clarity and transparency is an issue because Stobart Air needs a survival plan - a survival plan that will also be reliant on the support of Aer Lingus.
Stobart Group might think it has one. But Stobart Air's staff almost certainly think they deserve and have a right to input - as majority owners and controllers - in the carrier's future.