ATR 42s with similar colour schemes but different names reflect First Air’s transition as it merges with Canadian North.
“It’s been all about the merger,” said Capt. Peter Black, the First Air pilots’ Master Executive Council (MEC) chair, reflecting on his pilot group’s recent activities and focus. In 2018, First Air and Canadian North announced plans to combine their operations, citing the need to ensure sustainability, especially since both carriers provide passenger and cargo services on many of the same routes.
The Canadian government approved the merger on June 19, 2019, and the official launch date was November 1. The conjoined airline will maintain the Canadian North moniker but will keep the distinctive First Air red, white, and gray colour palette for its new livery. Moving forward, Canadian North will continue to integrate aspects of the two operations, including combining the two pilot groups. For now, they remain separate until a joint collective agreement can be negotiated and the pilots and management settle on an integrated seniority list.
“Mergers are usually awkward processes,” remarked Black, observing that despite some occasional snags, “Cooperation between the two pilot groups has been exemplary.” As evidence of that collaborative spirit and the relative ease of the transition, the Joint Negotiating Committee, made up of pilot negotiators from both carriers, sat down with management in November to discuss terms for a transition and process agreement. Much to everyone’s surprise, the parties were able to hammer out that agreement in the course of one very long day.
The new agreement outlines job/base security for all pilots, monthly minimums for any merger-related reductions during the rationalization of scheduled flying for both airline groups, scope language limiting contract initiatives with third-party flying, and reasonable financial cooperation from the company as the parties negotiate a joint collective agreement and integrated seniority list and combine the two MECs.
Among the items on its to-do list, the new Canadian North will need to combine its fleets. The original Canadian North pilots fly B-737-300s and Dash 8s while the First Air pilots fly B-737-400s and ATR 42s.
Blending cultures is another task the new carrier will need to confront as it moves toward the culmination of this deal. Black noted that his pilot group has maintained a good working relationship with management and that a detailed labour agreement is at the heart of this rapport. As the two pilot groups work toward a joint collective agreement, Black remains optimistic. He observed that while the two most recent contracts may have applied differing approaches and terminologies, the pilots of First Air and Canadian North share the same basic priorities.
The Joint Negotiating Committee is scheduled to meet regularly during the early months of 2020 and hopes to have a proposal to present to management by this summer. “We’ve agreed that we will use the mediation/arbitration process for the integrated seniority list but that will only happen at the very end, after the contract has been ratified,” said Black. He estimated that combining the two groups and consolidating the two MECs will likely take place by late 2020 or early 2021.
In the interim, the biggest challenge for the First Air pilots might just be turnover. “Along the way, we’ve lost many of our pilots to WestJet and Air Canada as a direct result of the unprecedented growth in Canadian aviation and uncertainties related to the future of First Air,” said Black, who also chairs the ALPA President’s Committee for Remote Operations. “However, some of this transition has eased since the approval of the merger and the new organization’s efforts to publicly express its intention to become a strong and sustainable legacy airline with deep roots and long-term goals in Canada’s north.”
Looking back at the legacy of First Air, the Kanata, Ont.-based carrier will forever have a deep connection with Canada’s aviation history. The organization was founded by aviation pioneer Russel Bradley and began operations as Bradley Air Services in 1946.