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Pay protest at Air Division grounds security copters

Published: 
Tuesday, February 27, 2018

If there is a major national security threat over the next couple days, the state’s response could be severely hampered because it is now effectively blind in the sky.

This is because the non-payment of pilots attached to Strategic Services Agency (SSA) Air Division has led to sick-out action by them, which has effectively grounded the helicopters that provide support to the T&T Police Service and other areas of national security.

Guardian Media has been reliably informed that the pilots, who have not been paid since December, have now started refusing to show up for work. The pilots, who are being seconded from the National Helicopter Services, fly the helicopters in border patrols, surveillance, natural disasters and search and rescue efforts.

Three people familiar with the situation have told Guardian Media the division has been crippled as a result of the ongoing action by the pilots.

“If there was any situation of national significance, the aircraft would be grounded because there are no pilots,” one source close to the situation who did not want to be identified said.

Even without payment since last year, the pilots still worked through the Carnival season, assisted in the search and rescue efforts of a hiking crew in Madamas and the search for a missing hiker.

However, with February almost to a close, some of the pilots claimed they have been unable to honour personal commitments and began calling in sick. Guardian Media was in fact told that no pilots were available between Friday and Monday.

The National Helicopter Services is a state agency based in Couva which employs the pilots, who are then seconded by the SSA. Sources said the agency has been telling pilots that they are unable to pay salaries because the SSA has not released the necessary funds.

The Government had already grounded T&T Air Guard helicopters after Cabinet took a decision not to continue a 200 million-dollar maintenance contract. The SSA’s Air Division was thus the only working air support unit under the National Security Ministry. One national security source told Guardian Media this situation could in effect make the state “blind in the sky.”

When Guardian Media attempted to contact National Security Minister Edmund Dillon yesterday, we were told all questions regarding the SSA’s operations must go through the Permanent Secretary. A number of questions relating to the salary issue and the Air Division’s operations in light of the action by the pilots were sent through a communications. However, there was no response up to press time.

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