An apparent “sick-out” by Air Canada pilots that triggered dozens of flight disruptions on Friday risks turning customers against the airline -- and against a union that can ill-afford to lose public support, labour relations experts say.
Described by the airline as an “illegal job action,” the decision of some Air Canada pilots to call in sick prompted outrage in airports across Canada, as more than 60 flights scheduled to arrive or depart from Toronto’s Pearson International Airport were cancelled, and many others were delayed.
The action -- the second of its kind in recent weeks -- follows months of bitter labour negotiations, and a decision by Federal Labour Minister Lisa Raitt to intervene in two separate disputes between the airline and its employees.
Ottawa passed a bill last month to send both disputes -- involving the pilots, as well as baggage handlers, ground crew and mechanics -- to binding arbitration, effectively removing the workers’ right to a strike and the airline’s right to a lockout.
Employees can be fined up to $1,000 and the union up to $50,000 for contravening the law.
But while pilots may be frustrated, Ryerson University labour relations expert Maurice Mazerolle says they are “not doing themselves any favours” by inconveniencing customers.
“All they’re doing is they’re playing into the government’s hand here,” he said. “They are making it incredibly difficult for the union in the public’s mind. Lisa Raitt can do no wrong in the minds of some people because they’re going to say, ‘That’s why we need government intervention.’”
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.
But Mazerolle says union officials should be doing more to counter the rogue element that appears to have emerged within their membership.
“This is almost a last straw in the public’s mind. If they can’t control their own members, what assurances can they give that this isn’t going to happen in the future?” he said. “If I was in the union leadership right now, I would use every sanction I have under the constitution of my union to take these people down. They’re putting the union at risk.”
The erosion of public confidence has become a growing concern for Air Canada.
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.
Following a wildcat strike by Air Canada ground workers in Toronto and Montreal last month, the airline revised its ticketing policy to allow passengers to rebook free of charge.
With so much at stake, Queen’s University labour relations expert George Smith says he is surprised that Air Canada has not taken a more active role in attempting to broker a resolution.
“The pilots and the management actually have a mutual self-interest. If they continue to drive customers away from Air Canada, it’s not good for either one of them,” says Smith, a former senior director of employee relations at the airline. “People’s tolerance is being tested. At some point, people will just say, ‘A pox on both their houses.’”
The outrage was apparent on Friday, as disgruntled passengers vented 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, Porter Airlines and others. However, some passengers have no choice where Air Canada offers the only service, including direct flights, she noted.
According to Smith, the continued disruptions are evidence of deepening divisions within the pilots’ union.
“They definitely have some issues to deal with, but that doesn’t make it any easier from the company’s perspective,” he said, adding that the government’s involvement “just exacerbates all of this.”
-- With files from The Canadian Press
About 3,800 customer sales and service representatives represented by the Canadian Auto Workers union held a three-day strike in June. They reached a deal with company just hours after the federal government introduced a bill seeking to legislate them back to work. At issue was employee pensions. The airline proposed new hires would receive defined contribution pension plans instead of the defined benefit plans current employees have. Ground workers ratified a new contract that leaves pensions alone, but negotiations continue over their future shape. -- The Canadian Press
Air Canada's 6,800 flight attendants voted 98 per cent in favour of a strike action in September, rejecting a contract the Canadian Union of Public Employees had negotiated with the airline. At issue, once again, was pensions -- Air Canada had proposed that new hires would receive defined contribution pensions plans instead of the defined benefits plans flight attendants currently receive. CUPE and the airline negotiated a second deal in October, and flight attendants rejected it again -- this time by a more narrow 65 per cent. The federal government intervened again, sending the dispute to an arbitrator, who imposed the second agreement hammered out between the union and the airline. -- Canadian Press files
Air Canada's pilots and ground technicians were set to walk off the job just in time for March break when Air Canada threatened to do it for them and lock them out. For the third time in less than a year, the federal government intervened, passing back-to-work legislation and sending the matter to the industrial relations board. Prime Minister Stephen Harper defended the government's repeated use of back-to-work laws to prevent Air Canada strikes and lockouts, saying the airline is crucial to Canada's economy and cannot be allowed to stop operating, especially during a high travel season. -- Canadian Press files
Days after a pilots' and machinists' strike was averted, Aveos, an Air Canada maintenance contractor, announced it was shutting plants in Montreal, Vancouver and Winnipeg laying off 2,400 employees. Some 200 employees in Montreal blocked access to the Air Canada building at Montreal's Pierre Elliott Trudeau building on Monday March 19, 2011. -- Canadian Press files
Days after Labour Minister Lisa Raitt used legislation to prevent a walkoff or lockout of Air Canada pilots, the airline was hit with a flurry of delays and cancellations as an unusually high number of pilots called in sick to Montreal's Trudeau airport. The airline clearly suspects the move may have been some kind of covert labour action, as it has filed a complaint about the incident with the labour relations board. -- Canadian Press files
A ground crew wildcat strike disrupted Air Canada's operations at Pearson Airport on Friday, March 23, 2012, after the airline reportedly fired three workers who had followed Labour Minister Lisa Raitt through the airport, heckling her. When ground workers walked off the job in protest, the airline reportedly fired 37 of them, causing further job walkoffs. The labour relations board eventually put a stop to the protests and reinstated the 37 fired workers, but not before the strikes had spread, briefly, to airports in Montreal and Vancouver.
A month after pilots in Toronto and Montreal called in sick en masse, prompting flight cancellations, the same thing appeared to happen again, as a "sick-out" by pilots hit Toronto's Pearson Airport. At least 60 flights were cancelled the morning the apparent job action hit. The Air Canada Pilots Association distanced itself from the action, saying it wasn't sanctioned by them. Air Canada described the sick-out as "illegal." Photo: Chris Bouchard, whose flight to Calgary was cancelled upon his arrival, checks flight times at Toronto Pearson Airport on Friday, April 13, 2012. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Michelle Siu)
Air Canada pilots lost their monumental labour battle with the airline when an arbitrator, appointed by the government after back-to-work legislation, sided with the airline. The decision sent Air Canada stock higher on the expectation the decision would pave the way for a discount Air Canada airline brand, but left the company's pilots angry and disillusioned.