Montreal: Air Canada's customers are becoming collateral damage in a labour stand-off between the country's largest carrier and its biggest unions.
Even after the federal government rushed to Air Canada's aid with a back-to-work bill, passengers still faced flight cancellations as ground-crew employees staged wildcat strikes on March 23. That was five days after so many pilots called in sick that the airline had to trim its schedule.
The disruptions showed how the bargaining struggle over new union contracts is spilling into operations. Standard & Poor's Ratings Service said in a statement following the pre-weekend walkout that Air Canada's debt ratings may be cut and raised the prospect that the labour disputes might erode bookings in the busy summer travel season.
"The long-term viability of the company is in question," said George Smith, a director of employee relations at the airline from 1982 to 1992 who now teaches labour relations at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario.
More than 80 flights were cancelled during the ground-crew members' impromptu walkout on March 23, which coincided with the start of spring break in Alberta. A government arbitrator ordered an end to the strike.
"We recognise that many customers are being inconvenienced and our focus right now is on getting them to their destination safely, and as quickly as we can," Chief Operating Officer Duncan Dee said in a statement.
Operations questions dogged Air Canada throughout last week, as the Montreal-based airline sought government aid to end what it called an illegal sickout by pilots on March 18 — which the union denied — and endured the shutdown the next day of heavy-maintenance provider Aveos Fleet Performance.
Aveos was spun off from Air Canada after the airline sought creditor protection in 2004, and unions want the carrier to take back the 2,600 workers who lost their jobs when the repair operator filed for insolvency on March 19. Air Canada said it has no intention of buying Aveos or rehiring the employees.