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St. John's airport skirts 'forced closure' for another 24 hours, says labour minister

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ST. JOHN'S, N.L. — Federal Labour Minister Seamus O'Regan says the parties involved in a labour dispute at the St John's International Airport have agreed to keep the facility running for another 24 hours.

In a tweet Wednesday evening, O'Regan said the St. John's International Airport Authority and the union representing the airport's firefighters will "continue to work with the Federal Mediator to resolve the dispute."

His tweet came just hours after the airport authority said a 24-hour stop-gap agreement reached on Wednesday morning was set to expire at 8 a.m. Thursday, and officials weren't sure what would come next.

"I would like to say to the travelling public that the urgency of this situation is our highest priority," Paul Avery, chief executive officer of the airport authority, told reporters Wednesday afternoon. 

"A forced closure of the airport at this time is not something that we can allow to continue."

Management was talking with the firefighters union and a federal mediator was there to guide them, he added.

The Union of Canadian Transportation Employees has said a "campaign of harassment and discrimination" against firefighters has stifled concerns around safety and regulatory compliance and ultimately thinned their ranks. In a news release Monday, the union said staff were being told by their doctors to stay home because of the "toxic workplace."

On Tuesday night, the airport authority said it could not find enough staff for the firehall to meet regulations and thus suspended all flights except cargo, medical evacuation and planes with fewer than 20 seats. 

Avery said seven of the airport's nine firefighters were "unavailable for work," but the remaining two had agreed to work a 24-hour shift beginning Wednesday morning, which would bring staffing levels to code and allow the airport to run normally. 

In the meantime, airport officials were trying to secure other qualified firefighters to replace the two workers when their shift ended at 8 a.m. on Thursday, he said. 

The authority worked with Transport Canada to find other firefighters "locally, nationally and internationally" who could help out, pending the union's blessing, Avery explained.

"We are calling on the union at all levels to assist us in bringing these qualified resources in so we can move back to full operations in very short order," he said.

As for the union's allegations, he said the airport authority hired an independent investigator to look into the union's concerns. The investigator's report prompted "significant changes," he said, adding that changes are still being made.

Thomas Johnston, a rotational worker living near St. John's, said his flight was among those cancelled because of the dispute. He works on a ship in the Great Lakes region and lives in the town of Holyrood, N.L., on his time off. Johnston said he was supposed to head back to work on Wednesday, flying from St. John's to Toronto at 5 a.m. and then to Windsor, Ont.

His plane didn't leave the ground.

"This should not have come to this level," Johnston said in a Facebook message to The Canadian Press about the dispute. "It should have been dealt with before bringing … civilians into it."

He said he's been rescheduled on another flight leaving Thursday. But with the fate of the airport still up in the air, Johnston said he's not holding his breath. "I’m not gone yet," he wrote. "Anything can happen between now and tomorrow morning."

In a statement Tuesday, federal Transport Minister Omar Alghabra said the situation is "completely unacceptable."

"This airport provides an essential service to Newfoundland and Labrador," he said. "Both parties must take any necessary steps to find a solution that will keep operations ongoing and safe."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 19, 2022.

Sarah Smellie, The Canadian Press