Twenty-seven air traffic controllers in Gander are living in a state of limbo, having been told they are targets for layoffs that won't come into effect for months.
They've all been given "surplus letters," informing them they will be laid off in September, barring any changes. In the meantime, the union representing the controllers is promising to fight on their behalf.
"We have a lot of concerns about the process the company has taken," said Ian Thomson, Atlantic regional vice-president of the Canadian Air Traffic Control Association.
He said the union has filed grievances and an unfair labour practice complaint, and is continuing to speak with Nav Canada.
The coming cuts are part of a restructuring effort launched by Nav Canada last year, and follow earlier cuts to the company's paid training program. In September, 15 trainees were cut from the program, including seven who were in their final stages, according to the union.
In a statement, Nav Canada said the cuts are necessary "given the current pressures facing the company."
"Nav Canada must act promptly to safely streamline operations to ensure that the services supplied align with market demands," wrote Brian Boudreau, a spokesperson for the company, in the statement.
Despite the fact that the controllers continue to work, Thomson said the surplus letters have had a devastating impact.
"It's tough on everybody's self-worth," he said. "You put all this effort into training … and for a lot of people, their parents were air traffic controllers, and it's been a dream of theirs their whole lives.
"In an industry where historically nobody would ever think of a layoff."
The centre in Gander handles transatlantic flights. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, it had been a hive of activity.
In 2017 it handled almost 10,000 flights a week, according to statistics from the International Civil Aviation Organization.
But international travel has been particularly hit by the COVID-19 pandemic: down some 85 per cent in January compared with the year before.
Nav Canada's February traffic data shows that "weighted charging units" — a measure that combines flights, plane size and distance flown — is down 58 per cent across the country compared with February 2020.
Thomson says he believes there's a pent-up demand for travel, and predicts a rapid recovery when COVID-19 restrictions are loosened and more vaccines are administered.
That's a part of the reason that he's optimistic that some of the layoff notices will be rescinded, or individuals quickly recalled.
In the meantime, he said, those who have been served with surplus letters are facing a lot of uncertainty.
"The reality is, the training we receive is highly specialized. It's geared directly toward air traffic control," he said. "It's not going to get you into being a doctor or a lawyer, you know. You're really starting back at Square 1."
Gander's mayor, Percy Farwell, says that loss will be felt right across his community. He also hopes that many of the workers and trainees will return to the air traffic control centre when air travel rebounds.
He estimates many of the trainees that were cut would have stayed in Gander to work, buying houses and cars and spending their salaries in town.
"Young families that would have spent their working lives here, most likely, and everything that entails and adds to our community," he said. "Having young, active families here. So it's serious."