Wasaya Pilots
A Wasaya Pilatus PC-12 parked at Pickle Lake Airport.

Making contract gains remains the top priority for the Wasaya Airways pilots, who’ve been involved in collective bargaining with management since May 2019. In fact, the pilot group’s Negotiating Committee achieved a tentative agreement at the end of last year that includes pay and scheduling improvements.

The agreement, which was reached on December 18, is good news as the tempo of recent negotiations had slowed significantly since the talks had turned to contract items of a greater financial impact. However, this delay was short-lived, and the two parties were able to come to an understanding shortly before the Christmas holiday.

“The process isn’t quite over,” remarked Capt. James Harding, the pilots’ Master Executive Council (MEC) chair, who noted that it’s now up to the pilots to vote on whether to ratify the tentative agreement. The vote was slated to close on January 24 as this issue of Air Line Pilot went to print.

The MEC and the Negotiating Committee conducted road shows in Sioux Lookout and Thunder Bay, Ont., during early January to explain the details of the proposed agreement.

However, if the pilots reject the offer and eventually reach a standoff in the collective bargaining process, a dispute-resolution mechanism is available. The airline maintains an “essential services” designation under the Canada Labour Code. Wasaya transports food, clothing, fuel, medicine, and other necessities to remote communities throughout Ontario that depend on these flights.

Consequently, the special designation permits the pilots and management to initiate third-party conciliation and arbitration to settle outstanding terms and conditions of employment. “We can go down that road and call in a third-party arbitrator,” said Harding, who added, “However, we would have to go through a certain process before that’s an option.”

The pilots began the most recent round of negotiations last spring with Capts. Rob Watson, Mark Lavoie, and John Heuving, together with a fourth member at the bargaining table who later vacated the position to become an assistant chief pilot for the airline. Harding joined the group and continues to serve as its fourth negotiator.

Turnover has not been limited to the collective bargaining team as significant numbers of Wasaya pilots have opted to build their time and then move on to airlines with better working conditions and larger networks. With the high workload that’s expected of this pilot group in serving the small and isolated Ontario communities, Harding noted that Wasaya probably sees a greater amount of attrition than many of its peers.

On the bright side, the pilot group has witnessed a spike in volunteerism as new members have stepped up to fill key MEC committee vacancies. This greater level of union involvement will come in handy as the Wasaya members complete the current election cycle and select new representatives to take office on March 1. These new pilot reps will serve as both MEC and Local Council reps because Wasaya is a single-council pilot group.

In terms of day-to-day operations, the airline has changed little in its route structure and the numbers of flights and aircraft it operates. Wasaya continues to fly to 25 destinations and operates from four Ontario bases including Thunder Bay, Sioux Lookout, Pickle Lake, and Red Lake. However, there’s been some discussion about adding another Dash 8 passenger aircraft to the carrier’s fleet of 17 sometime during 2020.

In 2019, the airline sold a 49 percent share of its operation to the Exchange Income Corporation (EIC), a diversified acquisition company with a special interest in aviation services and equipment. EIC also owns other airlines with ALPA-represented pilots, including Bearskin, Calm Air, Perimeter, and Provincial. The balance of Wasaya remains the property of 12 First Nations: Bearskin Lake, Fort Severn, Kasabonika Lake, Keewaywin, Kingfisher Lake, Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug, Muskrat Dam, Nibinamik, Pikangikum, Sandy Lake, Wapekeka, and Wunnumin Lake.