Tough times loom for Air Canada

What was supposed to be a routine Thursday night trip home for thousands of Canadians turned into an ordeal late last week, as Air Canada flights landed at Toronto Airport and were then unable to unload their passengers because the airline staff who open the doors and unload the bags had gone on a wildcat strike.

Those following on Twitter witnessed the drama live, as passengers turned on their wireless devices and began describing what was going on around them.

“Landed! An hour delayed not bad. Not like others who were delayed 5 hours or more,” CTV Toronto reporter Naomi Parness wrote on her Twitter account.

“Passengers just answered the phone at D36 since #AirCanada crew are absent,” passenger Lois Miller tweeted from a departure gate.

The wildcat strike culminated one of Air Canada’s most hellish weeks in years, coming seven days after Parliament passed a controversial bill meant to avert a strike at the nation’s largest airline. It also came four days after Aveos, formerly known as Air Canada Technical Services, abruptly went out of business, leaving several of Air Canada’s jets inoperable.

The incident that reportedly caused the strike: the suspension of several employees who sarcastically slow-clapped and called out mockingly to federal labour minister Lisa Raitt as she walked through Toronto Airport on Thursday. Raitt had guided the legislation through Parliament the preceding week which prevented airline workers from going on strike.

The legislation might not have been as helpful to Air Canada as it initially appeared.

The strike was “a direct result of the frustration the workers are feeling as a result of the government intervention in the free collective-bargaining process,” George Smith, Air Canada’s former employee relations director, told a reporter on Friday, adding that “it may harm the union’s agenda and certainly gives rise to people, who are anti-union to begin with, to say: ‘Just look what happens.'”

Indeed, the strike led some commentators to call for the disbanding of the airline’s unions and for foreign airlines to be allowed to fly domestic routes within Canada.

Others asked why Air Canada can’t be more like non-unionized WestJet, which has had little in the way of labour troubles.

Aside from the unionization issue, two huge barriers stand in the way of Air Canada becoming more like WestJet.

The first is that Air Canada lacks outside enemies — or at least any that employees and management can agree upon.

Yes, WestJet is taking market share away from Air Canada, but Air Canada employees are generally indifferent to or even respectful of WestJet’s accomplishments over the past 16 years.

Instead, many Air Canada employees see their own company’s management as the most ominous threat to their interests.

This sentiment can be seen in the comments left by Air Canada employees on RateMyEmployer.ca, a web site that encourages users to anonymously offer advice or warnings to would-be co-workers.

“I am a pilot at Air Canada. I love to fly, and it’s great when we’re ‘off campus’ on the other side of the world,” one commentator wrote. “The only time it is miserable is when you have to deal with management.”

“The worst managed company, just a bunch of greedy, money hungry bottem feeders trying to suck the very lifeblood out of us. Other then that, great guys to work for,” the unnamed pilot continued.

“Get out of there as soon as you can,” an anonymous former management employee advised those still working for the airline. “It is not worth the stress and things won’t get better no matter how long you wait. There is a much better world out of that place.”

“Horrible company, glad that I am laid off and can finally get on with my life,” a former Air Canada employee wrote. “Poisonous atmosphere, not organized at all, high stress, no feedback or direction from management.”

The last comment raises a disturbing question: Do employees feel trapped inside a company that is descending into corporate civil war, terrified on one hand of losing their income during a recession, yet not entirely averse to a catastrophe that would at least set them free to get on with their lives?

That brings us to the second barrier to Air Canada becoming more like WestJet: Air Canada employees are vulnerable to feeling trapped by their seniority.

Take a pilot or flight attendant as an example. Once hired by Air Canada, the new crew member starts at the bottom of the seniority list. The pay is poor, and the work schedule is unpredictable due to new hires being assigned to “reserve duty”, which means being on call to replace a more senior employee who can’t make a flight.

After several years, the hours and the pay start to get better.

But what do you do if you tire of the job at age 50?

By that age, a career change carries a heavier financial penalty than it would at ages 40 or 45, when there are still 20 years or more to fully recover prior to retirement.

The disgruntled employee could always go apply for a job at WestJet or Porter — and start over as a new hire, which is hardly a desirable thought.

In theory, the “seniority trap” should make for a pliant workforce. In practice, this trap is akin to outlawing divorce, allowing faltering or even abusive relationships to continue for too long after the love, trust or respect have run out.

Based on the reviews at RateMyEmployer.ca, WestJet appears to be going through morale problems of its own as it ages and no longer feels as threatened by Air Canada as it did in its early days, when WestJet’s survival seemed less certain.

WestJet employees, however, tend to be younger and are freer to walk away from the airline if things go sour. If the old saying that “the best social program is a job” is true, then the best promoter of workplace harmony is having another job to replace the existing one with.

Air Canada, in short, is as trapped as some of its employees. With no common enemy to unite staff and management, and too few escape routes from an increasingly toxic work environment, the country’s largest airline will struggle to prevent its internal turmoil from translating into dissatisfied customers who take their business to the competition. It may very well fail to do so.


Now, if that just put you in a gloomy mood, here are a couple of YouTube finds that will cheer you up a little. The first is a particularly good compilation of TV news outtakes from various U.S. TV stations.

And finally, a call to Dorothy Dobbie’s gardening talk show on CJOB 680 that takes an unexpectedly hilarious turn. Have a listen.

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About theviewfromseven
A lone wolf and a bit of a contrarian who sometimes has something to share.

2 Responses to Tough times loom for Air Canada

  1. Yer Pal says:

    I am capable of opening my own door & picking up my own bag. Fuck those wildcat strikers.

  2. David Brown says:

    Air Canada,
    In my mind the symbol of Air Canada is similar to the symbol that the RCMP gives the world.
    You have been around a long time and weathered many battles. Most of the times in the last several years your name appears with smug on its face and it is very sad indeed.
    Personally I have admired you company, I have for many years lived in what I always thought was Air Canada ground that being Pointe Claire.
    Ten years ago I moved out west and to mention the name A.C. generally brought rants of negativity. It was not a pretty message to listen to.
    Reading editorials about your unions, management, financial situation, non compitiveness,
    leaves concern for your future.
    You folks as the custodians of this great airline, have the opportunity either save it or sink it.
    Here is a time for greatness to raise it head and do the right thing for the name Air Canada.
    We live in a society , its all about me, so let’s try and make it, it is all about us.
    David Brown
    Sechelt B.C.

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