Chanting “Save our jobs” and “mayday,” more than 100 people staged a noon-hour protest Tuesday in Ottawa to demand the government act to save aviation jobs.
Many of the protestors were former airline employees laid off from their jobs because of the global pandemic. They are part of an estimated 50% of Canadian aviation employees who have lost their jobs since March. The Canadian Airports Council estimates that could be as many as 100,000 people.
“We’re stuck with a system that is redundant and not necessary,” said Noah Goldman, a Jazz pilot who said he’s been off work since early April. Goldman posted a video to Facebook wearing his pilot’s uniform shot in his living room in Toronto. “We need to find a way to live with this virus. To find a way to move forward. That means finding a science-based approach. That means implementing testing measures in place of a 14 day quarantine.”
The protesters added a grass-roots voice to the growing chorus demanding direct government support for aviation.
The industry is struggling through its biggest downturn in history. Over the summer, the number of passengers dropped more than 85% from 2019, as passengers stayed home. Since mid-March, the government has closed the borders to most discretionary travel. People entering the country must also generally observe a 14-day quarantine.
Airlines call the measures overbearing.
What would help look like?
“The wage subsidy actually delivered over $1 billion to Canada’s major airlines,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said at a news conference in Ottawa. “It has been significant and important to keep these airlines going.”
Ottawa introduced a wage subsidy to cover 75% of an employee’s salary, up to certain limits. Most airlines took advantage of the funding, but still laid thousands of people off. While the subsidies were also open to airports, dozens were not eligible because they are owned by municipal governments. That has worsened the crisis, said the Canadian Airports Council.
Trudeau said the government is looking for other ways to support the industry, without going into specific measures.
No one has released a specific dollar figure to explain how much help aviation needs. Airports are asking for interest-free loans, grants to fund capital projects, and direct subsidies to ensure the sector’s survival.
The hits have just kept on coming. In the past week alone, Westjet dropped service to five cities and laid off more than 100 people.
Also last week, the union representing flight attendants at Transat reported that fewer than 160 of its members would be working this winter. That’s out of a normal complement of more than 2,000 people. Transat is also closing its Vancouver base for the foreseeable future. Many Transat employees were among those at the protest demanding action to save jobs in the aviation industry.
All that came after Air Canada dropped its offer to buy all of Transat’s shares by more than 70%.
“We sometimes forget that more than 600,000 jobs in Canada depend on this industry, directly or indirectly,” Julie Roberts, president of CUPE’s Air Transat component. “What we need is an efficient federal screening program.”
What about testing?
Airlines have called for measures to allow the industry to ramp up again, such as pre-flight COVID-19 testing as a way to safely reopen the country’s borders.
“We are going to be pulling out all the stops to make sure that the government is taking action on this,” Conservative MP Michelle Rempel Garner told the protestors.
In the House of Commons, Health Minister Patty Hajdu said the government was following the science.
“We’ll always put the health and safety of Canadians first and foremost in everything that we do,” she said. “That’s why we take so seriously our responsibility to control the importation of COVID-19 at the borders.”
A petition demanding financial support for the industry along with safe border reopening and a national aviation strategy has already garnered more than 12,000 signatures. The petition slams “Government measures, such as the recommendation to Canadians to avoid non-essential travel, border closures and mandatory 14-day quarantine on all travelers entering the country, combined with a lack of sector-specific financial support.”
A similar protest at the same time drew a few dozen protestors to Quebec City’s Jean Lesage Airport. Quebec City is one of the locations losing Westjet service in early November.
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