Wasaya Pilots
A Wasaya Beech 1900D at Sioux Lookout Airport.

Last year began on a high note with the Wasaya pilots ratifying a new four-year collective agreement in January that contained many positive changes, including improvements to scheduling, pay, and per diems, as well as a uniform allowance. The pilots’ Master Executive Council (MEC) invested a great deal of time and energy into securing the agreement.

The beginning of March brought about a change in MEC leadership for the pilot group, with Capt. Mark Lavoie elected MEC chair, Capt. Elizabeth Cowden vice chair, and Capt. James Harding secretary-treasurer.

Then later that month, COVID-19 began to spread across the globe, causing devastating repercussions for the airline industry. “The pandemic led to uncertain times and anxiousness within the far northern regions that Wasaya serves,” said Lavoie. “Many of these communities are in vulnerable northern areas where any type of COVID diagnosis would prove disastrous. As a result, the locales have restricted travel, which has led to cutbacks in a few scheduled routes.”

Most of these northern communities cut all personal travel but still needed essential goods, such as fuel and food, flown in as these areas don’t have road access.

Due to the travel restrictions put in place in April and limited flying opportunities, the company laid off 35 percent of the pilot group. During that time, the company didn’t take part in any federal subsidy programs, including the Canadian Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS). In addition, the company chose not to implement any of the creative proposals the MEC offered to mitigate pilot furloughs.

As Cowden was one of the pilots laid off, Capt. Anthony Luna was elected to fill the vice chair position.

In late summer, the company announced that it had hired James Ward as the new president and CEO. “Throughout initial discussions, he’s been keen to proactively fix inefficiencies within Wasaya,” Lavoie observed. “A former Wasaya employee, he’s been very attentive to the needs of the pilot group and the MEC.”

Ward helped secure a new Dash 8 that led to a new contract to transport gold mine employees out of Red Lake, Ont. The company also signed a contract with Valard Construction, which is building the infrastructure to connect northern rural communities with electricity.

Because Thunder Bay, Ont., was fortunate not to experience any spikes in COVID-19 cases, travel to northern communities began to increase in early fall, and most of the pilots were recalled. But the steady increase in work was short-lived as a rise in COVID cases quickly stalled the travel momentum.

The company and pilots have been engaging in other opportunities to continue flying. They’ve worked with all levels of government to make COVID testing a priority and began flying dedicated charters for doctors and nurses to rural northern regions in order to test individuals living in those communities.

With the start of the new year, the pilots have reengaged in labour-management committee meetings, convening virtually, and look forward to when they can carry out union business and once again shake hands.