Canada’s Slow Approach in Addressing COVID-19 Crisis

By Corey Kuhn, Contributing Writer

As nations around the world respond to the damaging effects that the COVID-19 crisis has had on their economies, ALPA Canada continues to press the Canadian government to address the crisis facing the country’s airlines. As this issue of Air Line Pilot went to press, the Canadian government had yet to announce an aviation-specific aid package similar to what it’s done for the other hard-hit sectors of the economy—despite acknowledging that the aviation sector has been “disproportionately impacted.” Affected by official travel advisories, border closings, and quarantine rules, ALPA pilots, whom the government considers to be essential transportation workers, continue to contribute, taking significant personal risks when reporting for duty.

For the more than 5,000 ALPA members at 15 Canadian airlines—Air Georgian, Air Transat, Bearskin, Calm Air, Canadian North, First Air, Jazz Aviation, Kelowna Flightcraft, Morningstar Air Express, Perimeter, Provincial Airlines, Sky Regional, Wasaya, WestJet, and WestJet Encore—it’s far from business as usual. While their airlines are flying drastically reduced schedules, these ALPA pilots are doing their part to help keep the industry operating while also bringing Canadians back home through dozens of repatriation flights. To date, more than 18,000 Canadians in Spain, Ukraine, and other countries have returned on chartered flights, many of which have been flown by ALPA members.

Engaging with government officials, ALPA leaders have been in continuous direct contact with the ministers of Finance, Labour, and Transport since the COVID-19 pandemic began to acutely impact the nation’s economy, airlines, and frontline workers. Much like in the United States, ALPA Canada efforts have been geared toward calling for swift government action to support the financial viability of Canada’s aviation industry.

Working with officials and regulators, ALPA Canada has been unwavering in calling for government support that flows directly to workers, not to corporate coffers. ALPA has been adamant that any government aid must also be accompanied by strict limitations on executive compensation (including bonuses and stock options), share buybacks, dividend payments, and debt repayment designed to increase shareholder value.

As the government contemplates and prepares an aviation economic relief package, ALPA Canada launched a Call to Action to alert legislators of the importance of protecting frontline employees and their families. Since the Call to Action was launched, ALPA pilots have sent more than 1,500 letters to Members of Parliament, taking a stand for their future.

For pilots on the front line of this crisis, time is of the essence. ALPA pilot leaders and staff have been working around-the-clock to negotiate mitigation agreements with respective airline management that would help keep their carriers economically viable, pilots healthy, families protected from financial harm, and passengers and cargo flying safely and efficiently.

However, with a lack of economic support from the government, many Canadian carriers have resorted to, or have threatened, layoffs to keep airlines afloat. While some master executive councils (MECs) have been able to stave off significant layoff notices, others haven’t been so fortunate.

On March 20, despite a pilot-ratified letter of agreement, Air Transat announced that it would ground its entire fleet effective April 1. The nearly 700 pilots at the carrier suddenly found themselves with zero flying and no idea when the carrier would resume operations.

A small glimmer of hope occurred on April 11 when Parliament extended the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS) to airlines. The program was enacted to help incentivize employers to avoid layoffs by subsidizing employee wages. Unlike the U.S. aviation economic relief package that provided its airline industry with approximately US$50 billion in loans and grants to keep companies operational and employees on the payroll until flights can resume, under CEWS the government would assume 75 percent of workers’ wages from March 15 but only until June 6.

CEWS has been partially successful as several airlines have been able to rehire pilots, flight attendants, and other crewmembers who’ve lost their jobs due to downsizing caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, but it hasn’t been enough for some carriers to avoid staff reductions.

While many labour groups and employers applaud the government’s efforts on the creation of this program, ALPA believes pilots should be included in a labour-focused airline stimulus package as it’s clear that CEWS hasn’t adequately addressed the grave situation facing airlines and pilots. Currently, many pilots are facing either furloughs or drastic cuts to their wages and working conditions. Simply put, every single pilot is affected.

“Unfortunately, the government’s recently announced measures to assist businesses is an example of a ‘one-size-doesn’t-fit-all’ approach, as airlines continue to reduce flight and work schedules or have shut down operations completely, leading to drastic concessions from employees and layoff notices to tens of thousands of airline workers,” said Capt. Tim Perry, ALPA Canada president. “The airline industry is facing a unique crisis that will require additional governmental measures, given the magnitude of recent government-imposed travel restrictions and reduced consumer demand for the foreseeable future.”

ALPA Canada has also been vigilant in urging the government to provide protections for those pilots still flying. At present, crewmembers are taking significant personal risks by continuing to report for duty, which puts their families and communities at risk as well. For pilots to continue to contribute as essential transportation workers, ALPA Canada has raised health and safety concerns with Transport Canada on many occasions in recent months. Health and safety guidance materials, which are readily available to the public at large, have been adapted to some extent for the airline environment and provided to airlines and crewmembers by Transport Canada, pointing to guidelines from Health Canada and international agencies. However, an ALPA survey of Canadian Central Air Safety chairs found that there are significant gaps and inconsistencies in the application of the guidance material. ALPA expects and maintains that the guidance material for the health and safety of aircrews must be specific to their jobs and that all airlines must be compelled to uniformly abide by it.

“Our pilots need, and have every right to, a safe working environment. That means airports with properly screened passengers, clean workspaces, expedited passage to and from restricted areas separate from passengers, and access to safety equipment,” Perry remarked.

Despite ALPA’s considerable input and communications, including letters to the ministers of Transport and Labour as well as to the prime minister, the government has stopped short of elevating the immediate needs of essential, frontline worker protections.

Dissatisfied with that lack of progress, thousands of ALPA pilots and supporters took to Twitter with messages to Transport Minister Marc Garneau, urging that the aviation regulatory agency prioritize worker health and establish an emergency health and safety action plan to avoid dangerous situations for aircrews during crises like COVID-19.

In response, Transport Canada issued an interim order, effective April 20, that requires each traveler to wear a nonmedical face mask during all flights and at Canadian airport screening checkpoints, whenever it’s not possible to maintain a physical distance of two metres from other individuals, or when directed to do so by airline employees, public-health officials, or a public-health order.

“Pilots and other essential workers deserve much more protection. ALPA Canada will not let up until Transport Canada acknowledges its fundamental oversight and responsibility to ensure that aircrews have the protections they deserve by mandating appropriate measures and standards via an interim order now,” added Perry.

While there are many similarities between the approach that the U.S. and Canadian governments have taken in addressing the pressing issues facing pilots and crewmembers during this global pandemic, one thing remains true—ALPA’s resolve to protect and defend the health, safety, and security of its more than 63,000 pilots across North America. Passengers and businesses depend on air transportation and deserve swift and decisive leadership by regulatory agencies to not only protect the health of individual airline pilots serving on the frontlines of the fight against COVID-19, but also to ensure that the United States and Canada will have pilots available to drive the national and global economic recovery.

This article was originally published in the May 2020 issue of Air Line Pilot.

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