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Air Canada pilots picket at Toronto’s Pearson airport as talks continue

The Air Line Pilots Association kick-started the bargaining process in June
Air Canada pilots stage a demonstration outside Pearson International Airport in Toronto, as the union is calling for an updated contract for the pilots, Friday, Sept. 29, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Cole Burston

Air Canada pilots demonstrated at Toronto’s Pearson airport Friday, calling for better wages and working conditions as talks with the country’s biggest carrier continue.

Representing more than 5,000 Air Canada aviators, the Air Line Pilots Association kick-started the bargaining process in June, one day after fellow union members at WestJet ratified a new collective agreement.

Both the union and employer say the so-called informational picket at Terminal 1, which comes the same day their own nine-year deal expires, will not affect Air Canada’s flight schedule.

No strike is imminent, the pilots association said.

Charlene Hudy, who heads its Air Canada contingent, said the agreement has grown “stale,” with some co-workers leaving for better pay in the United States.

“We’re striving for this world class contract that Air Canada pilots do deserve,” she said, calling the wage gap across the border “unacceptable.”

“There was a point in time back in 2013 when we were pretty comparable — almost even — with our fellow counterparts at United.” But starting next year, United Airlines pilots will earn 92 per cent more, she said.

Between March and September, pilots at Delta Air Lines, United Airlines and American Airlines secured agreements that included four-year pay hikes ranging from 34 per cent to 40 per cent.

Since landing on a deal in 2014, Air Canada pilots have received a two per cent pay hike each year.

Hudy also highlighted career progression and job security as other points of contention.

Air Canada said it remains engaged in productive discussions with the union, and the deal’s provisions remain in effect.

The negotiations are “a normal part of the bargaining process,” spokesman Peter Fitzpatrick said in an email.

“We are committed to reaching a fair, negotiated settlement with our pilot group.”

In late May, the union invoked a clause to end its 10-year collective agreement a year early and launch negotiations for a new one. It served up a bargaining notice to company management two weeks later, the first step toward hashing out a new deal.

The union’s move came after 1,800 pilots with WestJet and budget subsidiary Swoop ratified a new agreement that brings them onto a level pay scale, giving flight crews a 24 per cent wage bump over four years and resulting in Swoop’s shutdown at the end of October.

Experts say the deal sets a new standard in Canadian aviation that will put pilots closer to U.S. pay levels and raise costs for airlines still recovering from hundreds of millions of dollars in losses during the pandemic.

The Air Canada talks also play out as airlines face intense domestic and cross-border competition from ultra-low-cost carriers such as Flair Airlines and Lynx Air and as labour shortages continue to plague the sector.

Christopher Reynolds, The Canadian Press