Union alarmed about airline project

POSTED: 01/20/13 7:43 PM

St. Maarten – The Windward Islands Civil Servants Union/Private Sector Union (Wicsu/PSU) wants the government to revise its statement or explain why it is in negotiations to set up an airline here when St. Maarten already owns 92 percent of Winair.
The union is alarmed at the Minister of Tourism and Transport Romeo Pantophlet’s announcement that was made on Wednesday during the governing programme launch at Sonesta Great Bay Resort.
Union president Derie Leonard says that she was immediately contacted by Winair pilots and ground service personnel, whom the union represents.
“We would like to know in whose interest these things are being done. If government has plans to invest in an airline why not invest in an airline that you presently have? They have been serving the community of St. Maarten, Saba, Statia and other countries.”
Wicsu represents 49 employees at the airline that underwent restructuring two years ago and has been steadily making its way back to viability. Last year, Prime Minister Sarah Wescot-Williams, who is the government’s shareholder representative on the airline’s board, said that she was cautiously optimistic about developments at Winair. The introduction of any new airline would cripple Winair, Leonard believes.
“Our position should be to look at the interest of the workers because if you bring in another airline saying it is our national airline then there are chances that you will be cutting back on Winair. This will run the company out of business and then when the company is not making money you will have another retrenchment where workers will be laid on,” Leonard said.
She is not alone in her concerns. Following the minister’s announcement, other citizens also reacted questioning why another airline instead of developing Winair. People are also worried since government owned airlines are not known to be successful, historically, St. Maarten made end up with additional debt.
Without any significant details on his new airline project, Minister Pantophlet reasoned that it would all tie into the imminent expansion of the Princess Juliana International Airport and diversification of St. Maarten’s tourism product.
“You have so many dedicated workers at Winair. If the worst happens and people are laid off you have a social unrest at homes. We don’t want that to happen. We are urging government to carefully look into these things that they are planning to do. Don’t just look at now but look at the consequences and results of these things. It can have a positive impact and it can also have a negative impact on our members and their families,” Leonard told Today.
Winair’s ownership was transferred to St. Maarten and the Netherlands on the day the island became an autonomous country in the Kingdom. The airline had a negative equity of 16 million guilders ($8.9 million) and an accumulated debt of more than 20 million ($11.1 million). The airline’s fleet was sold in 2006 through a sale and leaseback arrangement in an attempt to raise capital. Currently, the company pays between $30,000 and $32,000 per month for each of the three De Havilland DHC6-300 Twin Otters.
Winair managed to bring down its annual debt from 5 million to 900,000 guilders in fourteen months (from $2.8 million to $500,000) and to reduce its staff by 30 percent from 106 to the 74 in January of 2012.

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