For Bearskin pilots, 2015 was a welcomed uneventful year, seeing little change after the reorganization of the airline in 2013. As the employees and the company recovered from that reorganization, which saw three base closures, the parking of airplanes, and pilot layoffs, this past year brought a return to normalcy and an emphasis on established services and commitments.

The company refocused operations on its core market in Northwestern Ontario. With routes to 11 cities in Ontario as well as Winnipeg, Man., the 50 Bearskin pilots fly scheduled and charter flights year-round, operating 11 Fairchild Swearingen Metroliners that each carry 19 passengers.

In addition, Bearskin continues to partner with Hope Air—a Canadian charity that provides free flights to Canadians, almost half of whom are children, who can’t afford to travel to receive the medical attention they need—donating seats on its airplanes to the charity.

The pilot group’s small size has proven to be its strength, helping the group remain unified during the recent challenges the airline has faced. However, this committed, long-term core group of pilots may be changing as attrition at the airline is on the rise. Approximately 5 percent of the pilots are leaving each month—with first officers the overwhelming majority of departures.

“We haven’t seen pilot attrition like this in a very long time,” said Capt. Dan Parnham, the pilots’ Master Executive Council (MEC) chairman. “And I’ve never seen this many first officers leave. Historically, we’ve seen two first officers resign for every 10 captains leaving the airline,” added Parnham. “Regional airlines have typically hired captains from other airlines; but with the low entry pay at regionals and good captain pay and working conditions at Bearskin, captains aren’t applying to other regionals like they once did. This has proven to be a huge benefit to our operation as the pilots being hired don’t have the experience required to upgrade to captain for at least a year or two.”

On the negotiating front, the pilot group’s current contract became amendable on Dec. 31, 2015. After reviewing the results of a contract survey that was sent to the pilots, the Bearskin Negotiating Committee and the MEC set a course to achieve a fair contract for the pilots while promoting the company’s business plan. “We started negotiating this past November, and we’re hoping to reach a tentative agreement sometime in the first quarter of this year,” Parnham noted.

“The last two contracts have seen a pivotal shift in the relationship between the MEC and the company,” acknowledged Parnham. “This new harmonious relationship has been reflected at the bargaining table, with the pilot group and the company focusing on commonsense solutions that meet the needs of both parties.”

Bearskin pilots and the company have been engaged in interest-based negotiations, a process in which the two parties don’t exchange positions or proposals, but instead explain their interests and the underlying problems they wish to solve. “By using interest-based negotiations, our goal is to achieve not only what’s best for Bearskin pilots, but what’s best for our company’s long-term business plan,” Parnham noted.

“We’re fortunate that the pilots and the company have a mutually respectful and cooperative relationship. This is evidenced by our nine-year run without filing a single grievance, which we hope continues,” said Parnham. “Our desire is that each pilot hired at Bearskin has a long career at the airline and experiences the quality of life he or she wants and deserves while helping our company grow and prosper.” 

Bearskin pilots - ALPA
Capt. Dan Parnham takes off from Runway 07 at Thunder Bay International Airport.