Air Lib goes into liquidation

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France's second-largest airline, Air Lib was put into court-ordered liquidation in February 2003. The redundancy plan currently under discussion, based on redeployment, has raised concern among the company’s 3,200-strong workforce.

The company having been declared insolvent, the Créteil commercial court ordered the liquidation (FR0302105N) of Air Lib on 17 February 2003, just 18 months after having placed France’s second-largest airline - then in receivership - in the hands of chief executive Jean Charles Corbet (FR0109175N). The ruling dealt a fatal blow to the attempts to create a second major French airline which, with acquisitions, mergers and bankruptcies, have been headline economic and industrial relations news since the creation of Air Liberté in 1987. However, the liquidation of the airline is above all a disaster for the company’s workforce. Finding the company’s 3,200 employees alternative employment will become a priority once the liquidators have ordered they be made redundant (which was to occur before 3 March 2003). The government has pledged to 'do its utmost' to come up with solutions. In addition to the creation of a 'redeployment taskforce' overseen by a consulting company, the Ministers of Labour and Transportation have provided EUR 5 million for this purpose.

The hope of finding new jobs for Air Lib employees mainly lies with Air France, whose 'sense of social responsibility' has earned the praise of the Minister of Transportation, Gilles de Robien. The airline has apparently agreed to reserve 1,000 positions (ground staff and commercial air crew) for ex-Air Lib employees by the end of 2003. The Paris Airport Authority (Aéroports de Paris, ADP), French National Railways (Société nationale des chemins de fer français, SNCF) and Paris Public Transit Authority (Régie autonome des transports parisiens, RATP) are all reportedly being considered as alternatives for placing former Air Lib staff. However, Air Lib’s previous 2001 redundancy plan revealed that these companies would be able to absorb only a small number of redundant workers - a few dozen at most.

The 386 Air Lib pilots are a particular case. Maintaining their skills while they are unemployed costs a great deal of money. The idea of an EU scheme providing EUR 3 million to cover the specific costs related to this category of staff has been floated.

At a meeting of the Air Lib works council on 24 February 2003, at which a plan to safeguard jobs and initiatives to provide social support for redundancies were put forward, trade unions, which were strongly critical of the redundancy plan, raised concerns. Gilles Nicoli of the French Democratic Confederation of Labour (Confédération française démocratique du travail, CFDT) took issue with the lack of information on the overall financial assistance package and the level of compensation on offer.

The unions are also concerned about what they see as a mysterious and nebulous legal situation created by Mr Corbet, as well as what they claim is resulting potential for assets to be siphoned off. The Air Lib chief executive, currently the sole shareholder of Holco, has set up a number of subsidiaries abroad, often in tax havens. A group of trade unions - the Alter pilots' union, French Christian Workers’ Confederation (Confédération française des travailleurs chrétiens, CFTC), General Confederation of Labour (Confédération générale du travail, CGT), National Union of Civil Aviation Flight Personnel (Syndicat national du personnel navigant de l'aéronautique civile, SNPNAC) and Union of Civil Aviation Pilots and Air Crew (Union des navigants de l'aviation civile, UNAC) - is insisting that the 'assets currently held by the various Holco group companies be considered as a whole and not broken up'.

The flight slots made available by the demise of Air Lib are being eyed by other airlines, and priority might be given to those companies prepared to take on ex-Air Lib staff. The Minister of Transportation has even talked about allocating these slots to those companies prepared to 'hire the most ex-Air Lib employees'. However, the decision on allocation is the responsibility of the Scheduling Committee (Commission d’attribution des horaires) - an 'arm’s length' body, to which the government can only make recommendations. Some airlines such as Air Littoral have explicitly tied the number of slots sought to the number of ex-Air Lib staff hired. EasyJet has pointed out that this sort of linkage is incompatible with EU regulations. This airline is asking for 17,000 slots out of a total 44,000 but is refusing to make any commitment to hire Air Lib employees. The EasyJet chief executive, Ray Webster, contends that 'these slots must not be auctioned off for job promises' and has even threatened to move EasyJet flights to Spain or Germany.

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