Air ambulances and water bombers aren’t considered essential public services for Manitobans and can be privatized, Infrastructure Minister Ron Schuler said Tuesday.
He has issued a request for proposals to see if it’s worth privatizing the province’s air services and its fleet of 22 aircraft.
"It is not an essential service, it is an important service," Schuler told reporters. "This is not ideology. This is, can we get way better value for taxpayers? We think we should test the market."
Half a dozen companies expressed interest when the province raised the idea a year ago, he said.
Schuler couldn’t say what would happen to the 91 pilots and mechanics who are members of the Manitoba Government and General Employees’ Union if the air service gets turned over to the private sector, but speculated many would get hired.
The province said the Manitoba Government Air Service Branch currently provides wildfire suppression, air-ambulance service and general transportation, which also includes flights needed by Manitoba Hydro.
Schuler pointed out the province needs to use private aircraft about half the time already, but couldn’t say whether any other province has contracted out water bomber services.
"This is a very specialized service," the minister said. "We would want to have the same level of service we have right now. Manitobans elected us to be smart shoppers."
Private operators might use their own aircraft or might buy the government’s, he said.
The only way privatization would work is to lower costs, through fewer people, lower pay or less service, New Democrat MLA Tom Lindsey said, noting no other provincial government uses private water bombers.
"If they privatize it, the private sector wants to make money. The employees presently there are going to be left scrambling," he said.
Fighting forest fires shouldn’t depend on how it affects shareholders’ profits, MGEU director of internal operations Jean-Guy Bourgeois said.
"Manitobans, particularly in rural and northern communities, count on Manitoba Government Air Services for air ambulance and forest-fire protection. These essential services should not be auctioned off as profit opportunities for private airline corporations," Bourgeois said Tuesday.
"We know that Manitobans don’t want their air ambulance and water bomber services privatized. A Probe poll from last summer found that 72 per cent of Manitobans are opposed to privatizing these essential services. Even a strong majority (62 per cent) of Progressive Conservative supporters were against privatizing air services," he said.
Nick Martin is the bearded guy we keep hidden away at the back of the newsroom. He is now in his fourth decade working in daily newspapers.
Updated on Tuesday, March 13, 2018 at 4:44 PM CDT: Updates with new information
March 14, 2018 at 7:42 AM: Edited