Austral ERJ-190 LV-CHR at Buenos Aires Aeroparque (AEP) on 22Jan11
(Phil Perry Photo)
The Austral pilots' union, UALA, voted on January 3 to discontinue "converting" to the 20 new ERJ-190's that the airline acquired in 2010 and 2011.
The new type was planned to replace the airline's MD-80 fleet, originally set to be retired by the end of 2012. However, the pilots' union only agreed back in 2010 to convert to the ERJ-190 "voluntarily" with the result that the rate of training has been slower than needed to make full use of the new type. Five of the carrier's newly-delivered ERJ-190's were parked unused at Salta, Corrientes, and Formosa airports during much of 2011 and are still there plus the author of this blog saw two ERJ-190's parked remotely at Cordoba airport in early August 2011, apparently also unused. This delay has been costly for the carrier.
Mariano Recalde, the CEO of Aerolineas Argentinas/Austral (both are owned as one entity by the Argentine national government) announced in late 2011 that the carrier would move up the retirement date of the 150-seat MD-80's to April 1 of this year as a cost-cutting move to reduce the airline's fleet to just one type of aircraft and one that is better-suited to Austral's route network consisting primarily of Argentine domestic routes with relatively light passenger volume (the ERJ-190's are 100-seaters). Mr. Recalde's move was supported by the government's Minister of Planning Julio de Vido and Argentine President Cristina Fernandez in view of the government's need to reduce its subsidies to the two airlines which in 2011 amounted to US$ 757 million, a staggering amount given that the two carriers only have a fleet of approx. 70 aircraft total. President Fernandez criticized the union for "lack of cooperation" and an attitude defined by "self-interest".
The plans to retire the MD-80 fleet earlier than originally planned elicited the recent strong response from UALA's rank-and-file members, also causing internal conflicts within the union as the union's directors, including UALA president Claudio Zomoza, opposed the membership's stand.
The pilots prefer to fly the larger and heavier MD-80's because they can claim higher salaries plus one would presume that flying heavier types would make them better candidates for expatriate contract flying in countries in need of pilots, such as China and a few Middle Eastern states.
Where this situation will go remains a mystery but continued losses for the carrier appear to be a certainty for the foreseeable future.