‘It is urgent’: Unions call on Ottawa to deliver immediate aid to ‘devastated’ WestJet

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Amanda Stephenson  •  Calgary Herald ~ April 7, 2020

Dozens of WestJet planes are being parked around the Calgary International Airport on March 26, 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic shuts down most passenger air traffic. GAVIN YOUNG/POSTMEDIA

Unions representing employees at WestJet Airlines say the federal government must immediately deliver an aid package to staunch the bleeding at the Calgary-based carrier.

“It is urgent. Time is of the essence,” said Tim Perry, a WestJet pilot and president of the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) Canada. “We’ve never seen an airline or an industry so acutely affected, and I would go so far as to say devastated, within a matter of weeks.”COVID 19 Update: 98 new cases, one death; New labour rules in effect 

ALPA, which represents about approximately 1,500 WestJet pilots, is calling on federal Finance Minister Bill Morneau to make good on his March 18 pledge to soon announce specific measures to help industries such as air transport.

As yet, an aviation-specific package has yet to be announced, and finance department spokeswoman Marie-France Faucher said via email Tuesday that details are still being worked on.

Perry said his union wants to see relief similar to that which the U.S. government has already rolled out for its own aviation sector. Under that program, airlines that receive bailout funding must use the money to continue paying wages, salaries and benefits to workers. They cannot conduct layoffs or reduce pay rates until Sept. 30, 2020, and executive compensation at any companies receiving government assistance must be limited.

“We think that is absolutely the right approach,” Perry said, adding that keeping pilots on the payroll and up-to-speed on training and other job-related requirements is the best thing for the industry as a whole.

“In our view, it’s the best way to ensure a prompt and effective recovery of the sector when the economy and the world begin to improve,” he said.

Of the 6,900 WestJet employees who voluntarily or involuntarily left the company earlier this month, 2,280 were flight attendants. The possibility of more layoffs is real, saidChris Rauenbusch, a WestJet cabin crew member and president of CUPE Local 4070.

“Airlines, including WestJet, are burning through money every day. They will reach a point where there’s nothing left,” he said. “I know, from talking to the company, that we can’t say ‘this is where it’s going to end and it’s going to get better from here.’ It could continue to get worse.”

Rauenbusch said CUPE is “gravely concerned” that the Canadian government hasn’t moved as swiftly as the U.S. to offer direct aid to the aviation sector.

“We’ve seen in the United States that they have been quite quick to act,” Rauenbusch said. “And we haven’t seen that same type of urgency here.”

It isn’t just WestJet that has been broadsided by the impact of the pandemic on the aviation sector. Mike McNaney, president and CEO of the National Airlines Council of Canada — which represents the country’s biggest air carriers, including WestJet, Air Canada, and Air Transat — said his organization’s members have reduced their workforces by 50 to 75 per cent on average since the COVID-19 crisis began.

“And that of course is impacting thousands of Canadians in communities large and small,” McNaney said. “It’s absolutely necessary that (federal) action is taken in the near-term. We would hope as soon as possible — so, this week.”

On Tuesday, the International Air Transport Association said about 25 million jobs worldwide are at risk if the shutdown in air transport continues. The figure includes 11 million jobs in Asia and two million jobs in North America, the organization said.

The COVID-19 pandemic is “the biggest crisis we’ve ever had,” IATA head Alexandre de Juniac said on a conference call with reporters. “We have had a very supportive and open attitude from governments. They have announced significant rescue packages. But now, we desperately need these packages to be implemented . . . because we are clearly running out of cash.”

According to IATA, most airlines have about two months of cash on hand, meaning that many carriers will likely run out of money by the end of the quarter.

With files from the Montreal Gazette