A Canadian North B-737-300 in Iqaluit, Nunavut.
Heading into a new decade, optimism was abundant for the pilots of the new Canadian North. Members of the Joint Negotiating Committee (JNC) from both the Canadian North and First Air Master Executive Councils (MECs) had been meeting regularly with management following a deal on a solid transition process agreement after the merger of the airlines was announced in 2018.
But it was up to the JNC to work internally on the next major steps, including the process of integrating the two pilot groups, negotiating and implementing a joint collective bargaining agreement (JCBA), integrating the pilots’ seniority lists, merging MECs, and doing business under a single operating certificate as merger talks continued throughout the early months of 2020.
Progress on the creation of a JCBA document was being made as JNC members reached all the timeline goals set to that point, with hopes of being ready to present the joint opener to management in early spring. The JNC had planned to meet with company representatives through October as a show of commitment and desire to expedite the process to achieve a mutually agreed upon collective agreement. However, it wasn’t long before the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic changed everything.
“In the early days of the pandemic, our pilot group was assured many times that there were no intentions of laying off pilots as this crisis continued,” said Capt. Bill Rodgers, the pilots’ MEC chair. “However, we had the foresight to know that as the situation continued to evolve, our pilots would have to be prepared to make sacrifices along the way.”
While the Canadian North pilots didn’t encounter the drastic cuts their industry peers endured, sacrifices were made while circumstances put a complete pause on the ongoing merger talks.
Those changes took place within weeks of the global lockdowns and implementation of travel restrictions that forced company officials to look for creative solutions to keep the airline viable.
By April, the airline implemented a companywide initiative to solicit voluntary layoffs among all staff. News of travel restrictions put in place by the governments of Nunavut and the Northwest Territories would result in the Arctic turboprop operation being temporarily withdrawn from service. While it didn’t immediately result in pilot layoffs, it was a strong indicator that the impacts of the pandemic would be far more reaching than imagined at the beginning of March.
Management then requested the pilot group’s assistance in considering options to best deal with plummeting passenger demands. The pilots had already been strategizing in preparation to deal with the new realities of the airline industry. To stand in solidarity and move forward as a unified pilot group, the MEC negotiated a combination of allowance reductions for a period of 120 days to reduce costs, which in exchange allowed for layoff protection for every pilot.
In the meantime, the airline continued, somewhat successfully, to find additional avenues to keep the company viable and the pilots flying. This resulted in some temporary flying out of Alberta, and by May management confirmed that it would apply for the Canadian Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS) funding provided by the federal government, which would help eliminate any substantial pilot reductions and make up for lost revenue.
As the months rolled into late summer, airlines across Canada were given the good news that the CEWS program would be extended through the end of 2020. At the same time, some flights that hadn’t operated in the north since the beginning of the pandemic returned to partial service.
As the pilot group headed into 2021, the JNC was also able to get back on course with a November announcement that meetings and preparations for the new JCBA had resumed. With the help of ALPA’s Representation and Economic & Financial Analysis Departments, the pilots’ plan is to begin negotiations for the JCBA early in the new year.