Unions, industry and labour relations

The pandemic one year on – union renews pleas for government aid


“We’re drowning and this government appears to be torn between lifting us out of the water or pushing us under completely”

pandemic one year
Controllers at a NAV Canada Area Control Centre. Controllers warn hundreds of members’ jobs are threatened (NAV Canada).

One year after the pandemic shattered Canada’s aviation sector, unions renewed their calls Tuesday for government aid for the hard-hit sector.

“Layoffs are still being issued, working hours are still being reduced,” said Don Ross, the Interim President of Unifor Local 2002. He spoke at a virtual news conference organized by Unifor, the country’s largest private-sector union. “Employment is being severed to this very day.”

Ross represents employees at Air Canada, Jazz and more than two dozen other companies. They work in positions such as ground handling, ticketing offices, and crew schedules. A year ago, his union counted more than 14,000 working members. Today, the number is less than half that.

“The demographic that is hit hardest by all this are the laid off members with young families,” he said. “They’ve got mortgages, they’ve lost their benefits, they’ve gotten mounting debt. They have very uncertain career paths.”

The call for help comes as air travel shows signs of recovery in the United States. The Transportation Security Administration screened more than 1.3 million passengers on Friday, the highest level in a year. According to a report Wednesday in the New York Times, airlines in the U.S. have received $50 billion in grants to prop it up.

But data produced by the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority paint a different picture. Passenger numbers fell off a cliff on March 13, 2020. Overnight, the number of people screened at Canada’s eight largest airports fell from more than 102,000, to just 72,000. This year, only 10,000 passed through security screening at the same facilities. The figure has barely budged in two months, and it’s half the number of people who flew in November and December.


A machine will be replacing us

Companies have laid off tens of thousands of people since the start of the pandemic. And there are growing concerns of a brain drain as highly skilled professionals find jobs elsewhere – or in other industries.

NAV Canada has launched operational reviews at 32 airports across the country. Seven involve control towers, while the rest could affect flight service stations. Operational reviews could involve facility closures, although NAV Canada maintains safety is the primary consideration. That comes on top of navigation fees up 30% earlier this year.

“NAV Canada must understand our company is not a business,” said Doug Best, President and CEO, Canadian Air Traffic Control Association. “It’s a safety organization that provides an essential service to the aviation industry and the Canadian flying public.”

NAV Canada lost $138 million in its first quarter ended November 30. NAV Canada earns its money through user fees. So the decrease in passenger flights has had a devastating effect on revenues, particularly over the North Atlantic.

“We believe any reduction in Air Traffic Services or any cut of NAV employees will have a negative ripple effect for long term not only on that, but on the industry,” said Elizabeth O’Hurley, President of the Air Traffic Specialist Association of Canada. Her members work as Flight Services Specialists. They are paid less than controllers, but offer vital weather and traffic information to pilots and ground crews at smaller airports.

“If you close our site, it’s going to be a machine that will be replacing us,” she said. “Say that High Level and Peace River [Alberta] would be closed. You would have no human interaction on the ground for weather between Yellowknife in Grand Prairie, which is a really big region. It’s the size of the Maritimes. And planes still fly there.”

We’re drowning

NAV Canada has already decided to close two flight information centres in Halifax and Winnipeg. FICs provide weather and flight planning services to visual flights and general aviation. FICs in other cities will pick up the work.

And these losses on the ground say nothing of the skills idled in the air. Thousands of flight attendants, and hundreds of pilots are not working in aviation. Airlines may have kept some on due to wage subsidies – the government points to more than $1.1 billion spent in the sector – but for most, there’s simply no work.

“We’re drowning and this government appears to be torn between lifting us out of the water or pushing us under completely,” said Barret Arman, representing Sunwing Pilots. “Over the past year, our members have lost their homes, their life savings. They have sacrificed everything they have spent their careers building up. Ninety-six per cent of our pilots are furloughed with no recovery plan in sight.”

And that’s the big challenge. With no flying going on, the unions worry key skills will atrophy.

“There must be investment from this government into continual training of our furloughed pilots,” said Arman. “So that when a recovery is underway, the industry is ready to roar back to life safely and with confidence. There must and immediately be a plan to recover the industry and phase up barriers to international travel so that airports can operate. Pilots can fly and Canadians can travel so that we can read Our economy and reconnect with the global community and the global economy.”

I’ve grown and shaved two beards during these negotiations.

Jerry Dias, Unifor National President

Negotiating for so long

Ottawa announced November 8 it was open to negotiating a relief package with the airlines. It laid out key conditions, including a demand airlines reimburse passengers for flights cancelled due to the pandemic. As traffic cratered, airlines cancelled scores of flights and pulled service on dozens of routes. Instead of refunding passengers their money, they offered vouchers good for future travel. The move infuriated passengers who continue to vent their frustration on social media.

That was four months and one minister ago.

“They’ve been in contract negotiations for so long,” said Unifor National President Jerry Dias. “Not just with Air Canada, but with the entire industry. I’ve grown and shaved two beards during these negotiations. I bargain $6 billion contracts with the Detroit Three [automakers – GM, Ford, and Fiat Chrysler] in less time than we’ve been able to put together a plan for the airline sector here in Canada. So we just got to get this thing done.”

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