Air Canada

Can a petition help bolster Canada’s aviation industry?

A high school student from Nunavut garners 15,000 signatures in push to get government aid for Canada’s beleaguered airlines

Zoe Elverum in an Air Canada A220 seat.
Zoe Elverum on a recent Air Canada flight from Edmonton (photo: Instagram/@aircanadafangirl).

To say Zoe Elverum loves aviation would be an understatement. She’s the kind of person who picks flights based on the airplane, not the departure time. She’s even given herself the Instagram handle Zoe the Air Canada Fangirl.

“It was just an account that I made because I was tired of all the hateful comments against Air Canada,” she said in an interview with Western Aviation News. “Air Canada is my favourite airline and I was tired all the negativity and complaints against the airlines.”

When the pandemic started hammering Canada’s airlines, the self-described “dwarf [fan]girl who LOVES Air Canada” knew she had to do something. She watched as the government announced financial supports for small business, for individuals, but nothing for airlines whose business all but evaporated as a result of the pandemic.

“I didn’t hear or see anything going to the airlines. And so, like any Millennial would, I went online and I looked for what I could do to help,” said Ms. Elverum.

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If you had to pick a community to launch a nationwide petition, you probably wouldn’t start in Pond Inlet, a community of 2,000 people on the northeast tip of Baffin Island, and about 3,200 km due north of Canada’s main aviation hub in Toronto.

“It’s a small community, accessible only by air, no roads, nothing,” said Ms. Elverum who is going into her grade 12 year at the local high school. That isolation makes her feel the importance of aviation to the country.

“One of the many reasons I started this petition,” she said, “we rely on air travel for everything. We rely on it for our cargo, we rely on it to bring our health care staff.” Any time someone gets seriously ill in the community, they have to be flown hours south to the nearest hospital.

Her change.org petition calls for the federal government to give more support to Canadian airlines. Early Wednesday, the petition was shy of its goal of 15,000 signatures.

“It just broke my heart”

It’s no secret the airlines are bleeding money as a result of the pandemic. In its last quarterly conference call, Air Canada reported losing $20 million a day, though traffic has picked up somewhat from the depths of April and May.

While the petition is a political act, aimed at convincing federal ministers to step up with financial support, it is at its core a very personal story.

“Through my Instagram page, I know a lot of employees of Air Canada,” said Ms. Elverum. “I began seeing quotes going around saying ‘I’ve just been temporarily laid off.’ And it just broke my heart.”

Her own cousin is a flight attendant at Westjet. “She said that Westjet doesn’t have to call me back for five years. What is she supposed to do for five years?”

A read through the comments left by people who signed the petition reveal page after page of people who’ve been affected by the crisis.

“Due to the government actions and not qualifying for any aid whatsoever, I am losing my house, my vehicles, my career,” wrote Jeff Wynberg. “In a matter of months I will be homeless with three children. We need help after the government has taken away our livelihood.”

“I am a flight attendant on maternity leave right now,” wrote Daniela Andrade explaining her reason for signing. “As a first time mother I am devastated to hear that once I’ll be over with my leave I won’t have a job to support my family. Please, help us. Many more are in the same situation as me.”

Ms. Elverum is keenly aware that airlines are taking a drubbing over their refusal to refund people whose flights were cancelled as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. She’s seen some of that in reaction to her own posts.

“I have to kindly explain to them ‘Well if airlines get support from the government, they will be able to support you’,” she said.

She may not be far wrong. In June, the chief executive of Air Transat, Jean-Marc Eustache, tied passenger refunds to his airline receiving financial aid from the government.

Political reaction

Ms. Elverum said she has received responses to her petition from the federal minister of Labour and the minister for Economic Development, who said they would pass her concerns along to the minister of Finance.

“COVID-19 has led to an unprecedented situation in the aviation sector,” wrote Livia Belcea, Press Secretary to the Minister of Transport, in response to inquiries about the petition. “The Government of Canada is committed to supporting Canadians and ensuring that they continue to have affordable and efficient air transportation options for years to come.”

Belcea pointed to the federal wage subsidy and last-resort financing as programs available to the aviation industry.

“We continue to be in touch with airlines and are following the situation in the hard-hit aviation sector very closely,” she wrote. “Any additional measures relating to air travel will be announced in due course.”

Canada’s two major airlines, who combined are flying less than 75% of the capacity they operated last summer, have taken notice.

“Zoe’s campaign caught our attention and we are impressed that she sees the importance of air travel and its connection to economic development and activity,” Air Canada said in a statement. “These are matters that are important to youth, especially as they relate to job creation. It is also encouraging to see young people like her get involved in important issues such as this that benefits all of society, and make her voice heard.

“We thank Zoe and appreciate her support and passion for aviation within our country,” said Westjet spokesperson Morgan Bell in an email. “We continue to work with the government to minimize the damage of COVID-19 on our airline and to position our company and sector to help lead Canada’s economic recovery.”

Ms. Elverum admits she’s “probably” the biggest political activist in Pond Inlet right, though getting the backing of more than 15,000 people was beyond her wildest expectations.

“I thought ok, I’m going to make a petition. I’m going to ask my family to sign it,” she said. “I’m going to share it on my social media channels. I expected a thousand, maybe? Two thousand? It’s like 10 times what I expected.

“I feel humbled, but I’m not doing for myself. I’m doing it for the hundreds of thousands of employees being affected right now. I just really hope that the government will do something to get support the airlines need right now.”

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