A First Air B-737-400 combi on the ramp at Rankin Inlet Airport.
In 2019, First Air pilots focused on the merger between First Air and Canadian North, but the pilot group’s attention quickly shifted in 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold and affected the entire global airline industry.
Because the Northwest Territories and Nunavut communities served by First Air depend almost exclusively on aviation to transport goods and services, the airline was designated an “essential service provider” early in the pandemic. Since that time, the airline’s efforts to strike an effective balance between economic sustainability and maintaining an appropriate level of regular air service has been a challenge that continues to remain elusive.
Overall, First Air’s business has been reduced to approximately 65 percent of pre-COVID levels. “We’ve invested considerable time and effort engaging with the company to protect the existing limited market share while ensuring that our pilots’ health and safety aren’t jeopardized,” said Capt. Peter Black, the pilots’ Master Executive Council (MEC) chair. “The MEC has been collaborating closely with the company on multiple COVID mitigation strategies as well as health-related and lifestyle initiatives to support our pilots,” noted Black.
Many First Air pilots work in regions that have experienced very few positive COVID-19 cases due, in part, to strict public-health regulations and guidelines instituted by both Northwest Territories and Nunavut public-health agencies. While the measures have created a relatively safe public-health environment, they’ve resulted in significant and potentially harmful changes to the pilots’ day-to-day life. “First Air pilots who operate on a two-week rotation out of Iqaluit, Nunavut, are finding that the community is largely closed down due to public-health restrictions. Without normal access to local stores and restaurants, pilots often experience isolation that can become onerous while away from home for two weeks. We’re working to make the situation less stressful while protecting the health and safety of every pilot at First Air,” Black said.
One of the biggest industrial challenges the pilot group faced during the early stages of the pandemic was the company’s issue of employee overstaffing. By early April, the company had come to the MEC asking for mitigations to address costs associated with maintaining surplus pilots at all three of First Air’s operating bases.
The MEC spent a great deal of time working with the company’s proposed cost-recovery targets to identify an alternative to involuntary layoffs. Thanks to the pilots’ perseverance, the company eventually accepted an MEC-developed, seniority-based initiative that established a “voluntary inactive status” (VIS), which provided pilots with approximately 60 percent of normal remuneration while maintaining full benefit coverage. The VIS category successfully prevented any involuntary layoffs and is no longer required as crew levels have stabilized without subsequent involuntary layoffs.
On a positive note, First Air and Canadian North pilots resumed the joint collective bargaining agreement process in November, putting the consolidation/merger back on track. “The Joint Negotiating Committee members continue to work well together as they finalize the joint collective bargaining agreement,” observed Black. “We hope to continue our cooperative relationship with the company when we present the joint agreement opening proposal this year.” The pilot group is hopeful that a comprehensive tentative agreement will be sent to both First Air and Canadian North pilots for ratification by the second quarter of 2021.
“The end of COVID-19 and a return to some sort of ‘new normal’ can’t come soon enough,” Black acknowledged. “But just as the pilot group has faced so many challenges and threats to our livelihood, I’m confident that with the help of ALPA, we’ll find our way through these unprecedented times. This year marks the 75th year of continuous operation for First Air/Bradley, and we look forward to flying for many more years to come.”