An A330 preparing for departure from Montréal Pierre Elliot Trudeau Airport. (Photo: Air Canada)
Last year, the Air Transat pilots’ Master Executive Council (MEC) was engaged with the company on a wide range of issues, including Air Canada’s acquisition of Air Transat passing regulatory hurdles. But as the deadline for finalizing the deal was once again delayed, it became clearer that the insurmountable hurdles would dash the hopes of ramping up flight operations by the peak winter season.
In late January, the deal fell through, and once again, Air Transat was looking for another means of financial viability. Unlike in the United States where the government provided job-saving airline-specific aid through the CARES Act, Canada refused to discuss a program unless airlines reimbursed passengers for flights canceled due to the pandemic. The Canadian government’s only aid was the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy, which paid 70 percent of an employee’s salary with a maximum of $800 per week.
As more infectious COVID variants continued to spread worldwide, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau asked Canada’s major airlines to suspend service to all Caribbean destinations and Mexico from January 31 until April 30. The airlines agreed, and Air Transat officially shut down all operations. During the shutdown, Air Transat and the Canadian government agreed to a $700 million loan from the Large Employer Emergency Financing Facility program, which included cash at a very high interest rate for customer refunds.
Air Transat began to work on a restart plan and asked unions for concessions under the guise of a viable relaunch. The request for concessions contravened the agreement the company had with the government, and Air Transat was strongly advised against pursuing the request. The pilots worked with the company and signed Letter of Understanding (LOU) 29 regarding salary-freeze mitigations and the restart, recalling 470 pilots through March 17, 2022. At the end of 2021, the MEC continued to negotiate three other LOUs and deal with multiple grievances.
As an international airline, Air Transat does very little domestic flying. With the border recently reopened to international passengers, the airline has the complex task of rebuilding its operations. “It’s like coming out of a long hibernation,” said Capt. Pierre Lessard, the pilot group’s MEC chair. “Unfortunately, the Canadian government is maintaining its PCR test requirement for travelers who’ve been out of the country for more than 72 hours. This requirement has had a major impact on Air Transat’s ability to rehire pilots and to sustainably restart operations.”
For a vacation airline, such as Air Transat, the PCR test essentially makes family travel cost-prohibitive. Testing for a family of four amounts to the price of an additional ticket and remains an extreme deterrent to flying. The airline industry continues to engage with the government in an attempt to have border policies loosened.
“We need to get all our pilots back to work,” Lessard observed. “The government’s travel requirements and its lack of assistance have resulted in Air Transat losing almost all of its liquidity, and the airline has now amassed debts, all of which are hampering its restart.”
As the airline struggles to stay afloat, there’s a glimmer of light ahead. In November, Air Transat announced its new flight schedule, and almost all of its prepandemic destinations are once again being served. In addition, the company will be expanding its routes and flying directly to European destinations from Québec City, Qué. The airline also received the title of World’s Best Leisure Airline at the Skytrax World Airline Awards for the fourth year in a row. “It’s nice to see that the world considers us a gem of the leisure aviation industry, and we hope that the government sees that its restrictions are severely tarnishing that gem,” remarked Lessard.