PAL Airlines and Air Borealis

PAL Airlines and Air Borealis Pilots
A PAL Airlines and Air Borealis billboard located near St. John’s International Airport.

After more than two years of bargaining, PAL Airlines pilots and management are taking negotiations down to the wire. Management has mounted a steady campaign of unfair labour practices ranging from bad-faith bargaining to enlisting elected government officials to manipulate passengers and the definition of essential services. Simply put, PAL management is challenging the very foundation of Canada’s Labour Code with the assistance of the minister of Labour.

“Our members are looking for a contract that includes provisions for fair compensation, job security, and scheduling and rest rules that match those of their industry colleagues across Canada,” said F/O Tim Perry, ALPA Canada president. “PAL Airlines management continues to assert that because the airline is based in Newfoundland and Labrador, the pilots should be paid less than the rate of pay for pilots nationally.”

On Oct. 1, 2021, ALPA filed for federal conciliation, launching a three-month countdown for PAL Airlines pilots to take labour action. When the 60-day conciliation period concluded in December, both parties remained in dispute. The pilot group conducted a strike authorization ballot, and 100 percent of the pilots participating voted to support a strike, if that action became necessary.

Federal mediators were assigned to the dispute but were unsuccessful in helping the parties reach an agreement. In December, before the federally mandated 21-day cooling-off period was about to conclude, the company made the unprecedented move of asking the government to declare that the carrier’s flights were essential services. The St. John’s, Nfld., and Labr.-based federal minister of Labour sided with management and referred the question to the Canada Industrial Relations Board (CIRB). The move upended the pilots’ right to strike and management’s ability to lock out the employees and completely disrupted negotiations.

“This is especially heavy-handed given that the pilots have already provided management with a list of essential flights they were willing to continue operating in the event of a strike,” Perry observed. “The pilots even refused to accept compensation for such flying and instead wanted management to donate their earnings to charity.”

The exemption request is under consideration by the CIRB and could take more than a year to resolve. In the meantime, the pilots remain open to fair bargaining and look forward to achieving a collective agreement that reflects the nature of their flying. The pilots are seeking improvements in safety, scheduling, compensation, working conditions, benefits, and job security.

Leading up to filing for conciliation in October, COVID-19 stalled negotiations and the pilot group reset expectations, with the goal to attain its first ALPA contract by the summer of 2021. Negotiations continued virtually, and bargaining slowed due to the items being negotiated—mainly the operational sections (e.g., training, scheduling, filling vacancies)—and management’s unwillingness to bargain more than two days per month.

Negotiations began at PAL Airlines in 2020 with the Master Executive Council’s (MEC) objective of securing an agreement by the end of the year. The pilots—who provide regional service between St. John’s International Airport, Goose Bay Airport, Montréal-Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport, and Halifax Stanfield International Airport—have continued to work during the pandemic under extremely challenging conditions and while operating under an outdated pay system and rates and increased risks due to COVID-19.

The pilots at the two divisions of the PAL Airlines Group—PAL Airlines and Air Borealis—joined ALPA in April 2019, bringing 111 pilots to the Association. Each of the carriers operate as a separate entity under its own operating certificate, and the Association organized the two pilot groups separately with different government-issued bargaining unit certifications. However, ALPA considers the two groups unified as one pilot group with separate local councils under one MEC.