Friday, April 13, 2012

Transport Ministry to striking pilots: 'Get back to work'

 Government had a strong message for Air Canada pilots who caused dozens of flight delays and cancellations on Friday morning — get back to work.

The pilots caused havoc in airports across the country when they skipped work as part of an organized "sick-out" campaign.

The disgruntled pilots apparently were upset about federal anti-strike legislation passed last month, as well as recent threats by Air Canada to fire two of their union's top executives.

As a result, some pilots called in "sick" in a protest not officially sanctioned by their union. Air Canada criticized the employees for taking part in what it called an illegal job action.

"It's a dangerous move," said Ian Lee, who teaches business at Ottawa's Carleton University. "All they're doing is diminishing the brand of Air Canada and sending passengers to other airlines. We don't teach in business schools that it's a good thing to alienate and send to competitors."

Air Canada said at least 30 flights were cancelled Friday morning, and that more were delayed.

"The fact that this number of people has been stranded is unacceptable," said Pierre Poilievre, parliamentary secretary to Transportation Minster Denis Lebel. "It's essential to our economy to keep planes in the sky."

Poilievre, who said the pilots should "get to work," also said the government is monitoring the situation and is waiting to see the result of a complaint by Air Canada to the Canadian Industrial Relations Board before taking action.

This is the second rogue job action at the airline in the aftermath of the federal bill. The legislation, introduced last month, removed the right of the airline to lock out its workers and prevented the Air Canada Pilots Association (ACPA) and the union representing mechanics and ground crews from striking.

Flights also were disrupted on March 24 when some of Air Canada's ground crews walked off the job to protest the suspension of three of their colleagues for heckling Labour Minister Lisa Raitt.

Friday's work stoppage came after threats by the airline to fire both union chief Jen-Marc Belanger and ACPA president Paul Strachan for remarks they made in two separate television interviews questioning the safety of the airline.

The rogue group of pilots said Friday's illegal job action was necessary because of the back-to-work bill prevents a legal strike.

"The government and the corporation have largely handcuffed our leaders," they wrote in an email. "Our . . . chair Jean-Marc Belanger and our president Paul Strachan, giants in defending your rights, are having their careers threatened. You attack one of us you attack us all."

Friday's action is a violation of the anti-strike law.

"This looks like sheer frustration on the part of the pilots," said Rosemary Warsckett, an expert on labour relations at Carleton University. "There's a certain set of political and economic circumstances that mean the pilots are meant to have the right to strike, but in fact they don't. But it appears that they're going to exercise that right no matter what the government says."

Toronto's Pearson International was hardest hit, with more than 25 cancelled flights. Travellers in Vancouver, Calgary, Montreal, and Ottawa have also had to deal with delays and cancellations.

Cheryl Johnson's connecting flight between Toronto and Ottawa was delayed more than six hours.

"I'm disappointed," she said. "But I guess I just have to wait it out."

Johnson said she received no information from the airline about the delays, and only found out about the strike from another delayed passenger.

Joanne Wong saw her 7 a.m. flight to Seattle cancelled early Friday morning. The 24-year-old traveller said she was "lucky" she checked her flight status on the Air Canada mobile app before she left the house.

"Without the app, I wouldn't have known," she said. "I would have just been at Pearson airport at 5 a.m. running around."

Johnson said the labour problems will make her consider avoiding Air Canada in the future.

"It doesn't surprise me how ridiculous this has become," said Johnson. "I just don't really trust them anymore."

Air Canada took action to address the pilot shortage on Friday morning, consolidating some flights and cancelling others. As of 4 p.m., average delays on Air Canada flights at Ottawa International Airport were below 30 minutes.

Air Canada directed passengers to check for the latest flight information, but heavy traffic made the website inaccessible at different points during the day.

The airline flies about 600 major flights a day, plus hundreds of regional flights.

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