04/13/2012 04:05 EDT

Air Canada Strike: Pilots' 'Sick-Out' Risks Turning Public Against Airline, Union, Experts Say


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.

Twitter reacts to pilots' 'sick-out'

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.

Air Canada's labour problems

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

Twitter reaction to pilots' 'sick-out'

Air Canada's labour problems

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