TORONTO (Reuters) - Air Canada canceled more than 40 flights on Friday after what it called an “illegal job action” by some of its pilots, further ratcheting up already tense labor relations at the country’s biggest airline.
The carrier, in a heated dispute with two of its key unions, including the one representing its 3,000 pilots, asked the Canada Industrial Relations Board to declare the disruption an unlawful strike.
Earlier this week, it said in a letter to the pilots’ union that a number of pilots had planned to book off sick on Friday, although they were fit to fly.
The labor board expects to issue a decision on the cease-and-desist request within hours.
Air Canada Pilots Association president Paul Strachan said the union will comply with any labor board decision. But he warned that pilots are fed up.
“We all need to be very cognizant of the real risk that, at some point, the pilots will feel so beaten down and so helpless that they’re going to lash back and not even this organization is going to be able to control the outcome of events,” he said.
“I think we have the ear of most of them, still the vast majority of them. But I think there’s a growing frustration among them that it’s a hopeless situation, they feel like cattle being herded into the killing yards.”
Montreal-based Air Canada canceled 36 of 690 flights scheduled to depart from its hub at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport, according to the airport’s website, with a possible snowball effect on flights from other centers.
Air Canada wants to set up a discount airline to help its bottom line at a difficult time for the aviation sector. Its unions oppose the plan, fearing that their benefits and job security could be at risk.
The Canadian parliament passed a law last month that sent separate disputes with the Air Canada pilots and with its machinists to binding arbitration. That prevents the machinists from striking, and the airline from locking out the pilots.
“It is our duty to advise all pilots that ACPA’s right to strike and Air Canada’s right to lock out its employees are suspended until a new collective agreement takes effect,” the pilots union told its members earlier this week.
Noting that it has filed a motion in court to quash the legislation, the union added: “Until the law is struck down, we must all comply with it.”
Air Canada’s director of flying operations said in a letter to the pilots that the company would not tolerate pilots abusing the rules about “fitness to fly”.
“Be advised that Air Canada reserves its rights to take all appropriate measures to protect itself from the effects of this disruption,” wrote Captain Eddy Doyle.
“This could include taking legal action to recovery damages or to seek injunctive relief, and may include discipline, up to and including discharge.”
George Smith, a Queen’s University labor relations expert and former Air Canada executive said he saw no chance of a positive outcome to the dispute.
“You’re going to continue to annoy customers, no doubt there will be a legal response to this, and once again the pilots will be challenged for conducting an illegal strike. The government will say they’re not going to tolerate it and ratchet it up again, making it worse, rather than better.”
This is the second time in a matter of weeks that the airline has canceled and delayed flights amid reports of a pilot sick-out. Delays on the previous occasion were also attributed to fog and a fire on a runway at the main Toronto airport.
Air Canada was also hit by a wildcat strike last month, when ground crew workers walked off the job, disrupting dozens of flights.
Canada’s Labor Minister Lisa Raitt encouraged the two sides to resolve their disputes and restore passenger confidence.
Air Canada said would allow customers booked on flights today and tomorrow to book alternate travel without penalty.
Shares of Air Canada closed unchanged at 86 Canadian cents.
Additional reporting by Euan Rocha and Randall Palmer; Editing by Janet Guttsman