Air Canada's pilots are pulling out of their nine-year-old labour framework with the airline in a bid to renegotiate a better deal starting this summer.
The Air Canada pilots' group, which only joined the larger Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) this month, decided to exercise an option that was in their current contract that would allow them to pull out of the 10-year pact early. The existing deal was set to expire next year, and the deadline to exercise that escape clause was Monday.
After triggering the exit clause, the agreement will now expire at the end of September 2023, and the move means pilots will "enter the bargaining process this summer, once the union provides their notice to bargain to Air Canada."
"Our pilots have elected to use the option that was available to them to terminate the collective agreement after nine years," the airline told CBC News in a statement.
"The current agreement ... is a testimony of the productive relationship we have with our pilots. We expect the upcoming negotiations to be conducted in this same spirit."
Canadian airline staff say they are underpaid
Under the existing pact that was signed in 2014, the 4,500 members of Air Canada's pilots' union have gotten a two per cent raise every year.
Staff at Canadian airlines have long complained they are significantly underpaid compared to what their compatriots at U.S. airlines get. Cabin and flight crew at Delta Air Lines recently negotiated a new pact that got them a 34 per cent raise. American Airlines pilots authorized a strike earlier this month before reaching a preliminary deal last week.
The move by Air Canada's pilots comes after their compatriots at rival WestJet managed to secure raises averaging 24 per cent over the next four years in a last-minute deal that narrowly avoided a strike earlier this month.
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"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," the pilots union told CBC News in a statement.
George Smith, a lecturer on labour relations at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., has first-hand knowledge of how disruptive labour talks can be for airlines from his time as an executive at Air Canada back in the 1990s.
"When I was there one of the first things we tried to do was minimize noise around labour disruptions because they immediately affected bookings," he told CBC News in an interview.
He calls the airline's current deal with its pilots "revolutionary and progressive" because of its 10-year timeframe, which bought the airline an almost unprecedented amount of labour calm.
"In my day we would lose millions of dollars a day in advanced bookings from any strike talk," he said. "The longer it went on the less money you had to pay people in the talks you were in."
He says it's no surprise to see a new union leadership flexing its muscles, with such high-profile lucrative new contracts at other airlines in the current era of high inflation.
The recent WestJet deal "was definitely on the high side compared to other settlements, and if you add in working condition improvements it's a pretty lucrative deal," he said.
"If you are an Air Canada pilot you're saying, 'Wait a minute, we've been playing nice with this 10-year agreement,' and along comes WestJet's union saying, 'We can get this and more,' and then human nature takes over," he said.