MONTREAL — The pilots union at the country's largest airline has opened the gate to bargaining ahead of time — as early as next month, amid peak travel season — adding pressure to an industry under scrutiny after a rocky year.
The Air Canada pilots group said Tuesday it has invoked a clause to end its 10-year collective agreement a year early and launch negotiations over a new one.
The move comes after about 1,800 pilots at WestJet and budget subsidiary Swoop settled on a tentative deal this month that secures a 24 per cent wage increase over four years, as well as more flexible scheduling and a big boost to per diems.
Since landing on an agreement in 2014, Air Canada pilots have received a two per cent pay hike each year.
The current deal will remain in force until Sept. 29, but its provisions will still apply after that date, both parties said.
"The Air Canada pilots are looking forward to working with the company towards a contract that addresses career progression and job security issues for its pilots, and closes the growing wage gap between the U.S. and Canada," said Air Line Pilots Association spokeswoman Camilla Castro in an email.
"The current agreement, which has been in place for nearly a decade, is a testimony of the productive relationship we have with our pilots. We expect the upcoming negotiations to be conducted in this same spirit," Air Canada spokesman Peter Fitzpatrick said in an emailed statement.
The Air Canada pilots group, whose 4,500-odd members two weeks ago joined the Air Line Pilots Association, can kick off negotiations with a notice to bargain as early as June 1. The union expects to serve it to management early next month, said Castro.
The merger with the Air Canada Pilots Association, which WestJet flight crews also belong to, means 95 per cent of professional Canadian pilots are represented by a single union, according to Charlene Hudy, the Air Canada union's council chair.
The agreement between WestJet and its pilots — likely to be put to a ratification vote in early June — will serve as a benchmark for other aviation groups, ranging from flight crews to flight attendants, said aviation consultant Rick Erickson.
"I suspect that the Air Canada pilot union probably has the same documents sitting in front of them," he said in an interview Friday.
The pending negotiations come as airlines face intense domestic and cross-border competition from ultra-low-cost carriers such as Flair Airlines and Lynx Air, as Canadian airlines look to return to profit after hundreds of millions of dollars in losses during the pandemic.
Labour shortages continue to plague the aviation industry as the sector emerges from COVDI-19 and the past year's travel turmoil, with a dearth of workers in areas ranging from air traffic control to ground handling.
In March, Delta Air Lines pilots secured a deal that includes a 34 per cent pay hike over four years.
American Airlines pilots authorized a strike amid contract negotiations earlier this month before reaching a preliminary deal last week.
United Airlines pilots are also in the middle of talks, pushing for even higher pay than their Delta counterparts, as well as comparable quality-of-life provisions.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 30, 2023.
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Christopher Reynolds, The Canadian Press