Airlines allegations

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Local pilots feel denied from joining SolAir international service, CEO Gebers dismisses claims

BY BARNABAS MANEBONA

SOLOMON Islander pilots working in the Solomon Airlines are reportedly being intentionally blocked from taking up roles in the international service, an allegation CEO Brett Gebers has strongly denied.

Island Sun is told there is an ongoing practice, entrenched in SolAir for many years, which is designed to prevent local pilots from entering the international branch of the country’s carrier. Thus only expats have been recruited from outside.

And, it is observed this system is being continued by the current chief executive officer (CEO) Brett Gebers and his administration.

Sources familiar with the issue say this discriminatory practice has resulted in more than 20 years of zero Solomon Islander pilot upgraded to the international service although a few were experienced and qualified enough.

This is said to be the reason which had driven our local experienced pilots out of the Solomon Airlines, in search of green pastures.

“Solomon Islander pilots are domineered to work only in the Islander aircraft, Twin Otters and the Dash-8. They just can’t upgrade beyond dash-8 no matter how qualified or experienced you are.

“Over the years, despite many attempts by Solomon Islanders vying for a post as First Officer in the airbus [international service], none have been allowed to make it through.

“If a vacancy is advertised for a post as First Officer in the airbus, Solomon Islander applicants would either be disregarded in the first round of screening, or would be made to fail in the final flying tests by the international service’s check n training pilot,” sources say.

Solomon Airlines is a State Owned Enterprise (SOE), however, in light of these allegations, SolAir’s management just might be breaching the SOE Act which demands that employers must provide suitable selection of suitably qualified persons for appointment, equal opportunities employment programmes, opportunities for the enhancement of the abilities of individual employees, and good working conditions.

More so, SolAir’s own policy dictates that recruitment must first be sourced internally, and if no one is capable or qualified then the airline can look outside for recruitment.

SolAir’s management have always maintained that their reason for recruiting outside is that it is costly to upgrade national pilots than to recruit experienced [or type-rated] pilots from overseas.

However, Island Sun understands that early 2017 two expats were recruited whom were without rating and experience, Solomon Airlines had had to send them to New Zealand to be trained for six months before they could work in the A320 airbus. Solomon Airlines met the hefty extra costs.

It is also understood that a highly experienced Solomon Islander pilot had applied for the post at that time but was turned down.

In mid-November last year, a vacancy was advertised in the News Corps Australia for the airbus’s captain and first officer posts , and the criteria was set to disadvantage local pilots from applying. Island Sun is told that two expats have been recruited.

In the midst of all this seeming discrimination against local pilots, an expat had jumped from being a Twin Otter pilot straight to the A320 airbus in 2015.

Insiders say, “The recent upgrade of Captain Walding to the A320 in 2015 has raised questions among local pilots why some of them who have the necessary licences such as the ATPL are not considered to upgrade to the airbus. Captain Walding only holds a Solomon Island ATPL and not Australian as the recent criteria boldly highlighted.

“No matter how hard the management tries to defend its decision, local pilots and employees of other department feel that they are being discriminated against.”

Meanwhile, CEO for Solomon Airlines Mr Brett Gebers explains to Island Sun that the company is ensuring that ‘its activities are cost effective and structured to provide a cost neutral or positive return on investment’.

“Solomon Airlines whilst being 100 percent owned by the Government, unlike some SOEs, does not receive cash handouts and grants so it has to fund all its activities from cashflow. The Company has to therefore ensure that its activities are cost effective and structured to provide a cost neutral or positive return on investment.

“One of our pilots resigned from our A320 operation based in Brisbane and another one retires shortly. The only sensible cost effective fix was to employ two A320 type rated and current pilots. This action has minimised the cost to the Company for the following reasons.

“Firstly, we do not have sufficient local pilots with Airline Transport Pilot Licences (ATPL) to be able to release two of them to fly the A320. Taking pilots off our Domestic Service would have resulted in numerous cancelled flights.

“Secondly, the cost of training two non-type rated pilots is more than we can afford at present, particularly as we have a costly check due on the A320 in February and a large expensive check due on the Dash 8 at the end of the year.

“The A320 operation is currently based in Australia for many reasons. To have crew who do not have the right to work and live in Australia would make managing the operation very difficult at present. Furthermore … international airlines often fly through the night and on all 7 days of the week. Pilots wishing to join the small A320 fleet have to commit to being able to fly when rostered or when called upon to do so.”

Gebers attributes the problem facing local pilots to past administrations who had not considered the company’s future in their management of SolAir’s affairs, promising that under his watch plans are being rolled to ensure locals are eligible come next available opportunity for the airbus.

“The decision to employ the two pilots in early 2017 was done prior to me joining the airline however it was based on sound reasoning as there were not enough Solomon Island pilots with Airline Transport Pilot licences (ATPL) to allow anyone to be released without having a significant impact on the Domestic Network.

“The two pilots you referred to, have a significant amount of experience operating in high density airspace, did not spend 6 months to acquire experience in New Zealand as alleged, but more like the standard 6 weeks to obtain the A320 type rating. As soon as they had the type rating they were out productively flying our normal routes with a Training Captain.

“The shortage of suitably qualified pilots has several causes. The first is that the prior management was all but consumed in managing the day to day affairs of the airline and did not have enough time to focus on the future. The second issue is that in many instances the pilots have not made the effort to do the required studies to obtain the ATPL. Thirdly some of the pilots with the ATPL exams have not been able to acquire sufficient night flying hours to obtain the ATPL because of the shortage of suitable night flying facilities in the Solomon Islands. The fourth issue is that despite our best efforts to train some of the new pilots who graduated through a government sponsored plan, we were unable to get them to the required standard. The safety of our passengers and crew always comes first.

“Whilst there is still a large amount of work to do, we have put a plan in place to train sufficient local pilots so that when future opportunities on the A320 become available, we will be in a position to consider them. This plan includes flying between Munda and Honiara at night once the Munda lights have been installed in March 2018.”

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