Air Canada flight attendants need to accept realities of job: management

Canadian government urging Air Canada, flight attendants to reach deal
||Last Updated: 09/15/2011

Air Canada management says that its 6,800 flight attendants are some of the highest paid crew members in North America and that the airline is “disillusioned” about the lack of progress in labour talks.

The CEO for Canada’s biggest airline says in an internal letter to its employees that flight attendants need to accept the unpredictability in their job as one of the reasons the job is as lucrative as it is.

In the letter, Air Canada’s senior vice-president of customer service, Susan Welscheid, says that in choosing to be a flight attendant, “some facts of life exist.” She writes that life as a flight attendant includes overnight shift work, irregular schedules, short notice call-in, and delays as a result of unexpected plane maintenance.

“The tentative agreement represented an incredible amount of hard work done in good faith on the part of all involved,” Welscheid writes. “Even more disappointing was the fact that the deal rejected was an excellent one for our cabin crew, for the union and for the company.”

The letter included a table that shows a cabin crew member, age 55 with 30 years of service, earns $51,500 in salary, as well as $27,880 in other benefits, bringing the total annual compensation to $79,380. Air Canada flight attendants are among the highest-paid crew members in the North American airline sector, she says.

Flight attendants could walk off the job as early as Sept. 21, 2011. Earlier this week, they rejected a tentative contract agreement and voted overwhelmingly in favour of a strike mandate. By law, they need to give the airline 72 hours notice of job action, which has yet to happen.

A strike would severely disrupt the airline's daily flights to more than a hundred destinations in Canada, the United States and overseas. The airline has said it would implement a partial schedule, including flights operated by its partner airlines, if there were a strike.

The Canadian government is declining to say whether it is preparing legislation to head off the strike. A spokeswoman for Labour Minister Lisa Raitt said that Ottawa, which was quick to pressure striking workers at Air Canada with back-to-work legislation in June, is focusing on getting the two sides to reach a new contract agreement.

"As we haven't received any type of 72-hour strike notice from either party, the minister's just focusing on encouraging both parties to resume bargaining and reach a new collective agreement," Ashley Kelahear said.

Kelahear would not speculate about what would happen if the union did announce a strike, but the Conservative government set a clear precedent in June with its swift back-to-work legislation to end a walkout at the airline by another union.

On the day the strike by nearly 4,000 customer service workers began, Raitt gave notice of her intention to introduce the legislation. Two days later, just after the bill was introduced, the airline and the Canadian Auto Workers union came to an agreement.

However, it can take several days to get such legislation through the House of Commons if the opposition wants to delay it, even though the Conservatives have a majority in the chamber.

The union-oriented New Democratic Party managed to delay by one week another bill to force striking Canada Post employees back to work in June, even with the House sitting round the clock.

A spokesman for the Canadian Union of Public Employees, which represents the flight attendants, said the key sticking points in negotiations included wages and work conditions, as well as the airline's demand that new hires be moved to a defined-contribution pension fund instead of a defined-benefit plan.

- With files from Reuters

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