The beleaguered Kelowna Flightcraft pilots have faced a high degree of uncertainty during the past two years, and 2015 proved especially challenging for a pilot group that was placed into custodianship in late fall.
“The custodianship is designed to allow the Master Executive Council [MEC] the breathing room it needs to rebuild our volunteer infrastructure,” said F/O Nathan Lewis, the pilot group’s MEC custodian. “Of the 10 core leadership positions on the MEC, only three remain, and we’re all pulling double and triple duty. The MEC requested that the pilot group be placed into custodianship to give those of us who remain the opportunity to more fully utilize ALPA’s resources while we catch our breaths.”
The biggest challenge the pilots faced in 2015 was negotiating a concessionary collective agreement with a company with few future prospects. In 2014, Kelowna Flightcraft Ltd unsuccessfully bid to retain its Canada Post Group of Companies service agreement to transport 1,000,000 pounds of air freight nightly across Canada. That flying ended March 31, 2015.
Pilot attrition skyrocketed with the 2014 announcement, but the MEC was cautiously optimistic about the future of the carrier after the company revealed it had potential additional flying opportunities.
The pilots now perform scheduled international DC-10 flying twice a week from Toronto, Ont., through Moncton, N.B., and onto Brussels, Belgium, to deliver fresh seafood. “We can get the live eel, lobster, and oysters to market more quickly and thus provide a better quality product,” Lewis said.
The company (now called KF Aerospace) also works with a Europe-based sales agent to secure additional general cargo to bring back on its return flights to Canada. According to Lewis, the airline can transport oversize cargo that can’t be transported as “belly freight.”
“There’s an oversaturation of belly-freight carriers,” said Lewis, “and Kelowna has discovered a niche market to convey oversize cargo on the cargo deck of our DC-10s. Kelowna is capitalizing on all opportunities, such as transporting prototype cars and aircraft engines.”
The downturn of 2014 wasn’t over, however, as pilot furloughs continued to decimate the ranks of the MEC and the pilot group. Starting the year with 120 pilots, the pilot group has only 35 pilots actively flying Kelowna’s fleet of DC-10s and Convair 580s, which are used to fly freight for Purolator out of British Columbia.
“When we lost the Canada Post flying, the company investigated starting a new cargo operation with its fleet of B-727s to provide domestic freight service to feed the international flying performed by our DC-10s,” Lewis noted. “That vision never materialized, and by mid-July, all our B-727 pilot positions were eliminated.” Additionally, by early August five DC-10 crews were unexpectedly cut from the roster.
“Our existing senior pilots are now being transitioned to fly our remaining DC-10s, and they’re being trained in some cases by our more junior pilots who will ultimately be furloughed,” said Lewis. “To say the situation is demoralizing is an understatement.”
Despite the major setbacks, Lewis remains cautiously optimistic that things will improve in 2016 as the company continues to slowly build its presence in the international cargo and charter segment of the industry, which has included flying pigs to Russia and bulls from Spain to Peru. “Kelowna can’t rely totally on these types of charters,” Lewis acknowledged, “but it can continue to build on the international flying and provide more career stability to the pilots who remain.”
In October, Lewis (then acting MEC chairman) requested that ALPA’s Executive Council place the MEC into custodianship to give the remaining pilot leaders an opportunity to assess the repercussions of the summer’s turmoil and investigate available options, e.g., moving from a two-council pilot group to a one-council pilot group.
“We need to make sure we stabilize as a company,” said Lewis, “and once Kelowna finds its place in this new environment, we’ll be better positioned to make better decisions. I hope we’ll be in a position to exit custodianship in the summer.”