Uruguay defies unions as it plans for Pluna successor

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Uruguay's government is evaluating the possible creation of a clean-sheet national carrier, in the wake of the suspension of Pluna's operations.

While the government, in confirming the suspension, has avoided making direct reference to the strike which grounded the Montevideo-based carrier over 4-5 July, a source at the vice-ministry of transport says the government is not willing to "let itself be blackmailed by unions into renationalising the airline".

Pluna's controlling shareholder, Leadgate, in which Canada's Jazz holds a 33% participation, "returned" its stake to the state after not being able to inject its part of a required $30 million recapitalisation.

Since than, the government has maintained conversations with several potential investors, including Jazz and the Argentinean travel group Buquebus.

According to the ministerial source, Uruguay is evaluating several options, including the creation of a new national carrier. "But whatever we will do, we will do it with a private controlling shareholder," the source says.

A local source familiar with the situation says that Uruguay wants to "avoid by all means the 'Argentinisation' of its small aviation industry", referring to the situation in Argentina, were a pro-union government renationalised, then heavily funded, loss-making Aerolineas Argentinas in 2009.

"Uruguay wanted to cut immediately any temptations to let this cancer grow as there is a clear priority in this government that those millions of dollars are better employed in hospitals or education that in satisfying airline union claims," the source adds.

Pluna was operating 13 Bombardier CRJ900s, most of which had their finance guaranteed by the Uruguayan state.

Grounding of Pluna could eventually accelerate growth plans of Uruguay's only other airline, BQB Air, which is looking into complementing its ATR 72-500 fleet with CRJ200s. BQB Air is owned by Buquebus, one of the potential buyers of Pluna.