A Perimeter Dash 8 preparing to land at Winnipeg James Armstrong Richardson International Airport.

Last year began like most others in Canada for Perimeter pilots: an initial lag in business after the holiday season, followed by an uptick in spring due to the closing of the winter road season in the northern communities. Perimeter pilots were making progress with a new joint collective bargaining agreement with the pilots of Bearskin Airlines after ALPA won the election to represent both unionized pilot groups in May 2019. And then, like the rest of the world, March brought the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.

COVID-19 spread across the globe, sending the airline industry into a downward spiral. The pilot group’s priorities instantly pivoted from finalizing the joint collective bargaining agreement to saving as many pilot jobs as possible.

The Perimeter pilots’ Master Executive Council (MEC) worked tirelessly with the company and crafted a letter of understanding (LOU) that protected nearly all pilot jobs for the two-month period of April and May. Prior to the LOU’s expiration, MEC leaders attempted to negotiate with the company to extend the LOU past May. However, the company wanted permanent concessions to the pilots’ current collective agreement in exchange for saving pilot jobs—an idea the MEC wasn’t willing to entertain.

MEC leaders asserted that furloughs be based on seniority; however, the company opted for its own methodology, resulting in pilots being furloughed out of seniority order. “We promptly filed an unfair labour practice complaint with the Canada Industrial Relations Board, and the company proceeded with 30 furloughs for June 1,” said Capt. Riley Box, the pilots’ MEC chair. “The MEC leaders stood our ground and maintained our bargaining rights, and many of our pilots were recalled before the furlough effective date.”

In the fall, the company notified the MEC that a further labour reduction would be necessary beginning on December 1. MEC leaders promptly began discussions on how to mitigate these upcoming furloughs. The MEC and the company agreed to a second LOU to prevent any further pilot furloughs from Dec. 1, 2020, to April 1, 2021, that involved the pilots participating in a reduced work schedule. When the MEC surveyed the pilot group, 70 percent of the participating pilots voted in favour of the LOU.

To date, the pilot group has been fortunate that none of the pilots have been infected with COVID-19. “Most of our flying is to northern communities where either COVID-19 hasn’t spread or has been contained to isolated areas,” said Box. “Because many of the communities we serve don’t have year-round road access to move goods, our pilots are vital to transporting essential supplies. We remain committed to maintaining strict COVID policies to ensure that these vulnerable and remote northern communities and our pilots remain safe.”

Regarding negotiations, talks have stalled as the company is adamant that all discussions be made through its outside lawyer. Communications have also been hampered due to COVID-19 restrictions that have prevented in-person meetings. “Due to these necessary and stringent regulations, we’ve lost the personal side of negotiations,” Box observed.

In this new year, the MEC and a robust pool of volunteers will continue to work with the company to achieve a joint collective agreement and address numerous scheduling issues, including the implementation of new company software. “We also look forward to being able to meet with our colleagues again for pilot unity building events and being able to have social gatherings once the pandemic is behind us,” said Box.