Air Canada has won an order declaring its pilots' job action to be illegal as labour tensions escalate at the country's largest airline.
The order by the Canada Industrial Relations Board requires the carrier's pilots to comply with the law, and cease any work stoppages – a development that came after Air Canada warned consumers about travel disruptions, saying it cancelled more than 70 flights on Friday because of pilots who called in sick.
In its latest legal manoeuvre, Air Canada revived its previous application to the labour board, stemming from flight disruptions blamed in part on pilots who phoned in sick during the March 17-18 weekend.
Air Canada had suspended that original complaint against the Air Canada Pilots Association for allegedly authorizing members to stay home if they saw fit, but given the new disruptions, the carrier sought and won a declaration that Friday's job action was illegal – part of a "97 squared" group displaying defiance.
The group's name refers to ACPA members who approved a strike mandate in February. Of those pilots who cast ballots, 97 per cent voted in favour of a strike mandate, and the voter turnout was also 97 per cent.
The labour board's ruling opens the door to potentially stiff penalties in future. Employees who defy the law each face fines of up to $1,000 a day, while union officials each face levies of up to $50,000 a day. ACPA also could be fined up to $100,000 a day, if the union is found to have contravened the law.
"We recognize the inconvenience this job action has caused to our customers," Air Canada executive vice-president Duncan Dee said in a statement Friday night. "We thank them for their patience and loyalty as we redouble our efforts to restore their confidence in Air Canada."
Captain Paul Strachan, ACPA's president, said in an interview Friday that "the employer is stonewalling and the government is seen to be in cahoots with the corporation, so pilots feel isolated. Some pilots are taking matters into their own hands, and ACPA doesn't condone this."
The union issued its own Bay Street-style research report on Air Canada, saying the "company would rather lock out pilots than negotiate." In a newsletter to pilots, Capt. Strachan also questioned "the leadership, direction and governance of Air Canada."
Friday's disruptions follow last month's chaos, when ground crew went on a 14-hour wildcat strike. On March 23, Air Canada delayed 200 flights and cancelled another 210 trips in moves that disrupted one-third of the airline's network across North America. An estimated 24,000 customers got caught in the snarls, or nearly one-quarter of Air Canada's daily traffic.
On March 17, Air Canada's internal data showed 40 cancelled flights, including 31 allegedly due to pilots phoning in sick. On March 18, amid foggy weather in Toronto, the airline's statistics showed 59 cancelled flights, of which 30 are attributed to pilots' absence.
"As well, the number of pilots available for make-up or draft work" from March 1-26 tumbled to 50 people, compared with 285 pilots being available to work on standby in the same period in 2011, according to Air Canada.
The combination of pilots phoning in sick and the depletion of staff on the on-call flying list forced cancellations, the airline submits.
In its application to the labour board on Friday, Air Canada said it became aware earlier this week that "certain of its pilots had received phone calls from a person identifying themselves as 'Pilot X' and encouraging them to book off from duty on the basis that they were sick on April 13, 2012."
The carrier said 50 to 70 pilots typically phone in sick on a given day in April, but on Thursday, 115 pilots called in with an illness and by 8:10 a.m. on Friday, 152 pilots had booked off. "As pilots book off sick in record numbers, they need to be replaced," Air Canada said in its submission.
On Thursday, the chairman of ACPA urged members to report for work on Friday and ignore "a small group" of pilots who wanted colleagues to call in sick to show dissatisfaction with management. Captain Jean-Marc Bélanger said union leaders and airline managers strongly disagree with the tactics of the group.
Last month, federal Labour Minister Lisa Raitt referred two disputes to the Canada Industrial Relations Board, a manoeuvre that blocked 8,600 ground crew from going on strike on March 12 as planned, as well as thwarting management's notice to lock out 3,000 pilots on the same day. As a precautionary measure, Parliament passed back-to-work legislation in mid-March.
The "97 squared" group of dissenting pilots said they're unhappy about how management has been treating union officials. Ottawa has "draconian legislation that removes your right to withdraw your services in order to protect your job," the angry group of pilots said in an e-mail with "We Are Air Canada" in the subject field.
But Ms. Raitt said Friday that by "introducing and passing back-to-work legislation, we put the public interest and the Canadian economy first to ensure that Canadians can continue to fly."
She said a process is in place for the two sides to reach a binding contract through arbitration. "Illegal work stoppages have disturbed and disrupted travel for Canadians. We encourage the parties to resolve their internal disputes and restore the confidence of the travelling public," Ms. Raitt said in a statement.