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No Helicopter To the Rescue

By Gréta Sigríður Einarsdóttir

TF-GRÓ Icelandic Coast Guard Helicopter
Photo: Golli. Icelandic Coast Guard helicopter TF-GRÓ during emergency response training drill.

The result of the Icelandic Coast Guard’s air mechanics prolonged strike is that for at least two days, Icelandic rescue services won’t have a helicopter ready in case of an emergency. The government has discussed ending the strike with legislation. While air mechanics state that it’s not a question of higher salaries, but rather that they fear that the deal on the table will ultimately remove their right to strike.

Only one helicopter operational

“The situation is dire, of course,” a spokesperson for the Icelandic Coast Guard Ásgeir Erlendsson told Fréttablaðið, on the fact that starting midnight tonight and for at least 48 hours, none of the Icelandic Coast Guards rescue helicopters will be standing by.

The Coast Guards’ air mechanics have been on strike since November 5. The Coast Guard’s winchmen aren’t on strike as they’re considered Coast Guard crew and air mechanics who are also winchmen have been able to keep the Coast Guards one operating helicopter, TF-Gró in use. Now it’s time for TF-Gró’s scheduled maintenance. The winchmen can handle the maintenance, but it will take at least two days to complete, during which rescue services won’t have a helicopter. “For the past few weeks, we’ve had one helicopter ready, TF-GRÓ. We’ve made sure it’s available for rescue missions and able to service emergency calls. But now it’s scheduled for maintenance which will take at least two days, and in the meantime, no helicopter will be operational,” Ásgeir explains.

The Coast Guard’s two other helicopters are out of commission. TF-Eir is under maintenance, and the 34-year-old TF-LÍF has been put up for sale and will not be used further by the Coast Guard. In January, the plan is to rent another helicopter to replace TF-LÍF. “When the strike started, TF-EIR was under maintenance, and for these almost three weeks since, no maintenance has been done on TF-EIR. The plan was that TF-EIR would be ready when TF-GRÓ was up for its scheduled maintenance,” says Ásgeir.

During this maintenance, further issues could be discovered, leading to the maintenance taking longer than two days. Ásgeir hopes it won’t come to that. “Of course, it’s not a good situation to have only one rescue helicopter operational, but it’s a dire situation to have none at all. And it’s also a serious matter that the need for maintenance grows every day and our issues with it,” stated Ásgeir. Helicopters don’t do well when they aren’t in use, and the maintenance might therefore take longer than expected.

Pressure to solve the stalemate

The National Union of Firefighters and Paramedics has declared their grave worries over the situation with the helicopters, emploring the government’s negotiation committee to find a way to negotiate with air mechanics to stop the dire situation created when the rescue services chain of operation is broken. Sailors’ unions and geophysicists have also declared their worries over the lack of helicopters, citing personal danger at sea as well as the risk of natural disasters, such as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.

Minister of Justice Áslaug Arna Sigurbjörnsdóttir shares their worries, stating: “Air mechanics have been offered the same pay raises as other public employees have received and it’s unfortunate that a deal hasn’t been reached.” She added that the government was weighing their options on how to react and stopping the strike with legislation is one of them. She has met with the Director of the Icelandic Coast Guard Georg Lárusson to review longterm possibilities but for now, there was no solution that could solve the problem in the upcoming two days. While the Danish Coast Guard has sometimes lent a helping helicopter, according to an agreement between the Icelandic and Danish Coast Guard, that is not an option for the next few days as there’s no Danish patrol boat in the vicinity of Iceland.

Air mechanics unhappy with new deal severing link to peers

The air mechanics’ wage agreement was up at the beginning of the year, and negotiations started in February. A large majority of air mechanics agreed to strike. Sixteen out of the Coast Guard’s 18 air mechanics voted, and 14 of them voted in favour of striking, two were neutral. The sticking point is that the Coast Guard’s air mechanics are not ok with that their wage agreement be cut off from the main wage agreement of Iceland’s Union of Aircraft Maintenance Technicians. The Coast Guard’s air mechanics’ agreement has always included a clause linking their agreement to the ones made by the larger union, who negotiate deals for commercial airlines’ air mechanics. The Union of Aircraft Maintenance Technicians has stated that it’s not a question of wages, but that the Coast Guard’s air mechanics are afraid that if they lose the link to the union’s agreements, they might lose their right to strike. That would make future wage negotiations harder, and they might not get the same wage increases later on as their peers.

When asked about the government’s discussion of ending the strike with legislation, Union director Guðmundur Úlfar Jónsson told RÚV that their opinion was that it was a hard stance, not only to take away people’s right to strike but also stop them from negotiating their wage agreements.

Even if opposing sides reach an agreement in the next few days, it’s too late to finish the maintenance on either of the two helicopters, so Iceland is certainly facing at least two days without a rescue helicopter on stand-by.

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