MONTREAL --Thousands of unlucky Air Canada passengers marked Friday the 13th by watching their flights cancelled or delayed as pilots called in sick as part of what the airline dubbed an "illegal job action.''
The airline issued a Canada-wide travel alert, warning that "airport disruptions'' could affect flights all day and into the weekend.
"Due to illegal job action by some Air Canada pilots, Air Canada is experiencing delays and some cancellations of flights today,'' said spokeswoman Isabelle Arthur.
Arthur wouldn't say what action the airline might take against pilots found fit to fly but who chose to participate in the job action.
"Fortunately, the vast majority of our pilots reported for work today and are behaving like the true professionals they are,'' she said.
More than 60 flights set to depart or arrive at Air Canada's hub in Toronto were cancelled, while scores of others were delayed, according the website at Pearson International Airport.
Passengers were also disrupted in other cities, including Montreal.
The move prompted travellers and the Canadian public to vent their anger on social media.
"I'm so sick and tired of my school groups being held hostage by Air Canada. Never booking with Air Canada again if I can help it,'' Cheri wrote on Twitter.
"The bottom line, people? Just don't fly Air Canada,'' added Jeremy Foreshew.
Isabella Caporici of NDG Travel in Montreal said the latest disruption will further sully Air Canada's tarnished reputation and prompt customers to switch to other carriers.
"I have had clients that say 'Forget it I don't want Air Canada, I don't want to be involved in their hassles,''' she said in an interview.
The airline is most vulnerable where passengers have a choice of carriers like WestJet Airlines (TSX:WJA), Porter Airlines or other carriers.
However, some passengers have no choice where Air Canada offers the only service, including direct flights, she noted.
The country's largest carrier and its regional partners operate 1,500 flights a day, including 660 by the mainline carrier.
The Air Canada Pilots Association urged members to go to work as usual and disregard dissident pilots who want colleagues to book off sick.
Master executive chairman Capt. Jean-Marc Belanger said the union didn't initiate or sanction the job action.
"ACPA has not and will not condone using the Canadian Aviation Regulations, which spell out the rights and obligations governing pilots who are not fit to fly, for industrial action,'' he wrote in a memo to pilots.
In March, federal Labour Minister Lisa Raitt referred the airline's disputes with the pilots and with Air Canada's 8,600 ground crew to the Canada Industrial Relations Board.
A back-to-work bill was passed in mid-March but some ground workers staged a wildcat strike on March 23 that affected several Air Canada flights.
The Protecting Air Service Act removed the right to strike or lock out and ordered both disputes to be settled by arbitration.
Employees can be fined up to $1,000 and the union up to $50,000 for contravening the law.
Air Canada (TSX:AC.B) has been embroiled in several labour disputes over the past few months, including with its 3,000 pilots.