Tuesday 23 July 2019

Helicopter rescue service could be grounded by strike

CHC employs 37 search and rescue pilots here, most of whom are Ialpa members. Photo: Damien Eagers
CHC employs 37 search and rescue pilots here, most of whom are Ialpa members. Photo: Damien Eagers
John Mulligan

John Mulligan

Ireland's life-saving search and rescue helicopter service risks being grounded in the coming weeks in a dispute over pilot rosters, the Irish Independent has learned.

More than 90pc of the service's pilots, who are represented by the Irish Airline Pilots' Association (Ialpa), have voted to approve industrial action, up to and including strike action.

The union has claimed there are "recruitment and retention issues" for pilots at the rescue service, which it insists has remained operational because of the pilots' "goodwill" and the "tolerance" of their families.

The search and rescue service is operated under a 10-year, €500m contract from the State by US-headquartered firm CHC. It has four operational helicopters, based at Dublin, Waterford, Shannon and Sligo, and flies up to 1,000 critical missions a year. It also has a back-up helicopter based in Ireland.

The service was devastated almost two years ago when four crew members - pilot Dara Fitzpatrick, co-pilot Mark Duffy, winchman Ciarán Smith and winch operator Paul Ormsby - died when their Sikorsky S-92 search and rescue helicopter crashed into Blackrock Island off the coast of Co Mayo.

It later emerged that Blackrock Island was not on a mapping system used by the Rescue R116 crew.

Dara Fitzpatrick died when her helicopter crashed in 2017. Photo: Collins
Dara Fitzpatrick died when her helicopter crashed in 2017. Photo: Collins

Ialpa held a ballot of its member pilots who work for CHC over the Christmas period. CHC employs 37 search and rescue pilots here, most of whom are Ialpa members.

The union told the CHC pilots in a letter last week that there had been an "overwhelming mandate" for "industrial action up to and including strike action", with 96pc of those who are members of Ialpa having approved action.

"The strike ballot was called after repeated attempts by Ialpa failed to convince CHC management of their obligations as contained in the Pilot Services Agreement (PSA)," the union said in its letter sent to pilots and seen by the Irish Independent.

"For too long, CHC management has failed to address pilot recruitment and retention issues. This has meant that the rostering agreement contained in the PSA which was designed to give stability to you and your families has been unilaterally set aside by management," it added.

The union claimed in the letter that the service has "survived for a prolonged period on pilot overtime, goodwill and the tolerance of your families".

It added that the actions pilots will take are "serious but necessary".

A CHC spokesman told the Irish Independent that the Irish search and rescue service requires a full complement of 37 pilots, which it has.

"Ialpa has notified the company of its decision to take industrial action," the spokesperson said.

"CHC is committed to continuing to engage in dialogue with the union."

Separately, CHC pilots also have a long-standing pay claim at the Labour Court. That is not related to the decision to approve industrial action.

Irish Independent

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