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Airline workers struggle to find employment as COVID decimates industry


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Airline workers struggle to find employment as COVID-19 decimates industry

Thu Nov 26, 2020 - The Globe and Mail
Eric Atkins -Transportation Reporter

Before Chris Brewer lost his job as a WestJet flight attendant, his typical shift was the Vancouver to Los Angeles route, taking off at 8:30 in the morning and returning by 3. He got to eat supper with his family and sleep in his own bed – rare comforts in the airline business. He met his wife, also a WestJetter, on the job and has formed close friendships with his co-workers. “It was perfect,” Mr. Brewer said. “I mean, I’ve been there for 13 years, so it’s kind of like a family.”

These days, Mr. Brewer drives a van for FedEx Corp, hustling parcels around the streets of Vancouver for $19 an hour, about half what he made at WestJet, with fewer benefits. “It’s different, that’s for sure,” he said.

The pandemic has thrown countries into lockdown, closed borders and killed almost 1.4 million people – more than 11,000 in this country alone. Job losses related to the crisis hit 1.1 million in Canada in October, not including the more than 400,000 who have seen their hours cut in half, according to government data.

But perhaps no industry has been hit as hard as the aviation sector. And no industry is as dependent on consumer sentiment – not only that it is safe to fly, but to visit other countries, eat, gather and see the attractions in those countries.

It was early March when Mr. Brewer knew the airline business – and his world - was about to be upended. He was scheduled to work the flight to L.A., but 150 passengers refused to board, cancelling their tickets amid rumours – unfounded – they would not be able to return to Vancouver. Two days later, there were just 10 people aboard a flight to Maui, and they were Americans, not Canadian vacationers. “In the boarding lounge, everyone was, like, coming up to us, asking us questions like, ‘What’s going on? What’s happening back in Canada? What was the Prime Minister saying?’ ” Mr. Brewer said. “There was a lot of anxiety, to say the least.”

In the before-times, air transportation was a $10-billion industry in Canada, measured by annual gross domestic product, that employed about 80,000 people, according to Statistics Canada. The industry’s GDP plunged to an annualized $350-million as the pandemic took hold, recovering to about $1-billion by August. Employment has held up far better, falling to about 50,000, buoyed by wage subsidies.

This suggests there is scope for more job losses through layoffs and airline mergers, despite the government aid, said Pedro Antunes, chief economist at the Conference Board of Canada. Even if a vaccine becomes widely available next year, demand for air travel – a pricey luxury even in good times – will lag the recoveries in other sectors.

Although domestic travel – visiting family and friends – is expected to recover first, lucrative business travel and overseas flights will lag. This is because the business trip has been replaced by the Zoom call – a habit that will be hard to break – and the patchwork of border restrictions, quarantines and vaccine requirements could dampen demand for overseas vacations.

“It’s one of those industries that are going to be hit for the longest,” Mr. Antunes said.

Canadian airlines and their international counterparts suffered drops in demand for seats of as much as 90 per cent. As second waves of the deadly virus sweep the globe, much of the world’s airline fleet remains grounded.

Yvette Nakamoto, an Air Canada fight attendant, is one of the lucky few still working. But she had to move to Toronto to take a job at Air Canada’s subsidiary, Rouge. She still makes $58 an hour, but lost 17 vacation days on top of leaving her family home in Calgary to rent an apartment near Toronto Pearson International Airport.

Ms. Nakamoto, 52, has 19 years of seniority, which helped her avoid layoffs at the unionized airline. Many of her colleagues are no longer working because they did not have enough years on the job or did not want to move their young families to Toronto. Any flight attendant with fewer than 15 years of seniority has been laid off, said Ms. Nakamoto, a trustee with the Canadian Union of Public Employees.

“A lot of them are struggling to find work because their [prospective] employers are like, ‘You’re just going to go back to your job.’ You hear that continually,” she said from Calgary. It’s not a fair assessment, she said, because it could be four years before airline jobs return and people begin flying again at prepandemic levels.

David Culos has flown and lived all over Canada in his 29 years as a pilot. Since 2006 he has worked for Porter Airlines out of Toronto’s island airport, taking passengers all over North America. Now, like thousands of other airline employees, he is out of work and wondering when he will fly again.

“It’s difficult,” Mr. Culos said. “I really enjoyed my job – I had a fantastic work-life balance at Porter. I had a bunch of different roles that I really enjoyed … so it wasn’t just about the flying. It’s about the interaction with the people. And having that routine … it was just difficult to lose.”

Airline executives and industry experts say a recovery in demand for air travel will take years, and the airlines that do survive will be smaller. The travel industry is calling for widespread, standardized COVID-19 tests for passengers, arguing it would be a safe way to shorten or even eliminate the quarantines travellers face. Alan Joyce, Qantas Airways Ltd.’s chief executive officer, said this week that the Australian carrier is looking at requiring passengers to provide proof of a vaccination before being allowed to fly.

Barry Prentice, a transportation professor at the University of Manitoba, said it is not clear when airlines will see a resurgence in demand. “It all comes back to one thing: Do people feel safe travelling?” he said. “It’s really a gloomy picture for a lot of people.”

Maria Smirnov is an Air Transat flight attendant who has not worked a flight since mid-March. She has been living on the government wage subsidy, which initially replaced 75 per cent of her salary, but was recently cut to 55 per cent. Out of that she pays tax, union dues and other deductions. In addition, she is not being paid her $2,000-a-month allowance for overnight stays and meals while working. “It’s very little pay, and you don’t have much left over,” she said from Montreal.

She is working part-time and on-call at a school as a lunch-room supervisor. “It has been difficult to get a job,” said Ms. Smirnov, 46. Most employers rule her out after she answers, honestly, that she would leave the minute Air Transat called her back. “This is a passion for us. It’s not just a job. It’s our identity. It’s who you are. It’s my life.”

Her last flight was into Montreal from Halifax, while she was off duty. She had been flying repatriation flights between Malaga, Spain and Halifax, but her crew was pulled from duty after a colleague’s husband caught the virus. She did not know it was to be her last flight for a long time, but could sense everything was changing.

“I enjoyed to the fullest our flight because I somehow felt that I wouldn’t be on that plane for a while,” she said. “I clearly remember looking out the window and saying, ‘How long will this be?’ I remember thinking that and just looking out the window at the sky and saying, ‘Oh, Lord, let it not be long.’ And here we are.”

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One thing that certainly doesn't help the airline industry is journalism that says stuff like; "now she only earns $58/hour" without giving some context.  The average person reading the article, with no knowledge of how the industry calculates pay, is left thinking the FA earns something like $110,000/year (based on $58/hour) when in reality it's $50,000/yr.  Everyone, please, stop telling the media/friends/family what your hourly rate is.  If you absolutely need to tell someone how much you get paid - tell them how much per year or per month and then tell them how many days away from family and how many night shifts etc.

Also, if you need to mention per diems be sure to also mention that you spend half/or 2/3 on food.  Getting a 2,000/per month perdiem without discussing the fact that restaurant food on the road generally costs at least twice what you pay in Canada paints a misleading picture.

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Here is a piece written by a flight attendant that likely applies to all airlines .

We were the lucky ones...indeed.
Flight Atttendants Remember when :
you got hired as a flight attendant. (Stewardess)
received your wings. worked your first flight.
were on call, worked holidays couldn't sleep
woke up and didn't know where you were, got reassigned
shared your life with co-workers you just met
laughed till you cried in the galley
got sick flying, cried yourself to sleep for being so far away
from your loved ones.
spilled (tomato juice) drinks on somebody.
missed your wake up call. no matter how hard you worked, how
tired, nobody on board seemed to care.
helped an old woman figure out her connection... or her ride
home, comforted somebody who was terrified of flying.
held a baby while an exhausted mother took a few minutes to go to the bathroom.
helped make somebody comfortable,
had the best layover of your life. * flew with a stranger who
then became one of your friends for life.
gave first aid to a passenger, * maybe saved a life.
made a real, meaningful difference in somebody's complicated day.
comforted a grieving spouse who just received the news ??
When somebody:
handed you a full barf bag or a dirty diaper on your way down
the aisle.
growled at you for another Diet Coke without bothering to say
please or thank you.
ignored you when you said hello. (And the 5,000 times after
touched you somewhere they shouldn't have.
a passenger got out-of-control drunk
The time when:
you slept in the parking lot too tired to drive home * your feet
hurt. * you worked yet another red-eye flight and someone
jokingly suggested you smile more.
Crew Sched called you at 3am to operate a 5:30am flight
a passenger sneered at you when you asked them to remove their earphones.
your layover hotel was impossibly noisy.
you found bedbugs in your bed. * bad weather or a mechanical
issue delayed your takeoff by three hours, and passengers acted like it was your fault.
your suitcase was taken by a passenger .
that jerk yelled and threatened you, but you managed to keep it together.
the lavatories were inoperable
those little kids looked at you like you were their hero.
you were #47 for takeoff Where:
The turbulence was so bad you were scared, but you still
managed to keep a reassuringly professional face in front of your worried passengers.
That time - every time - you kept people safe, made them comfortable,
helped get them where they needed or wanted to be at that specific point in their lives.
a passenger thanked you for the great service, and meant it.
You consoled a crying unaccompanied minor leaving/ visiting one
parent or another
you worried if your job was in jeopardy ?
Being a flight attendant isn't easy, and there definitely are
hardships that come with our profession. But our silver linings
are plentiful.
To the best of our collective knowledge, each of us only gets to
lead one life on this planet.
A life that goes by so fast, the years blending into each other..
For our lives, we chose to become flight attendants, to live and
work as professional globe-trotters. Because of this, our lives
will be unique, exciting and unusual. We get to experience life
to its fullest, to travel far and wide, and to touch countless
other lives while so many other workers are restricted to
changeless workplaces and minimal new encounters with other human beings.
Our lives - and our work - matters, even when we forget it, even
when we take it for granted. We're lucky to be flight attendants,
and today - heck, every day - we deserve to be proud. Really
*Most of all we are so lucky to have made priceless life long
and memories we made around the ???WORLD??
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14 hours ago, seeker said:

Everyone, please, stop telling the media/friends/family what your hourly rate is.  If you absolutely need to tell someone how much you get paid - tell them how much per year or per month and then tell them how many days away from family and how many night shifts etc.


Agreed.  Figure out your TAFB (time away from base) per month and work out that hourly rate.  For a lot of First Officers and Flight Attendants in this country, that $19/Hr Fedex delivery job is a raise.

Quick math - an FO making $60,000/year working a typical year at a regional might do upwards of 320 Hrs/Month TAFB.  Considering Vacation/Stats, that works out to just over $17/hr.

The things we do to fly airplanes...

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58 minutes ago, Canoehead said:

Agreed.  Figure out your TAFB (time away from base) per month and work out that hourly rate.  For a lot of First Officers and Flight Attendants in this country, that $19/Hr Fedex delivery job is a raise.

Quick math - an FO making $60,000/year working a typical year at a regional might do upwards of 320 Hrs/Month TAFB.  Considering Vacation/Stats, that works out to just over $17/hr.

The things we do to fly airplanes...

I would be very reluctant to bring up, to anyone, the numbers you have posted. Generally speaking, the public cares little about TAFB. There are so many other factors that you have not alluded to with respect to TAFB, factors that many in the industry find very attractive.


As Seeker stated, KIS, (Keep It Simple), when discussing your, or anyone in the aviation business wages/salary.

When I was asked how much I made as a pilot I generally replied that "my wages fluctuated, based on the number of hours I flew each month,  but  a ball park annual salary was approximately  ---------------- however  the price I had to pay was spending  considerable time away from my family when some flights required me to remain at destinations  for a night or two".

Seemed to adequately answer their question.?

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I think it is a fair question when it relates to this industry...in Canada

Many adventurous pilots who were looking for the biggest bang for the buck would always ask around to see what the going rate was for Left and Right Seat  as well as what the pay was for seniority in Canada as well as other parts of the world.

Prior to COVID many Canadian pilots went off-shore after looking around  because that is where all the \money was and they accepted the kind of lifestyle they would have to endure off-shore.

To me, more sensitive personal  financial questions are "What did you pay for your house?" ...or .... "What are your monthly mortgage payments? " ?

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10 minutes ago, conehead said:

I feel that not enough people share financial info, like salaries amongst co-workers. Why is it taboo?

Goes back to the days when people were paid based on merit (their boss determined that) and no one, outside of a union had any idea what their co worker was being paid. 

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5 hours ago, mo32a said:

^Pretty easy to find out what someone paid for their house.

Agreed. And how much they pay monthly on their mortgage and taxes. That is all public information. How much income is declared is not generally available to the public. Unless....you are engaged in a marital dispute in which event, EVERYTHING is public.

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2 hours ago, conehead said:

I feel that not enough people share financial info, like salaries amongst co-workers. Why is it taboo?

That's not an unreasonable question and Malcolm's response probably suffices. I can't speak to co-workers although I dated a girl once who worked as a bartender and the owner gave her an hourly bonus to keep her happy. Of course, she didn't share that info with the other bartenders.

As a general statement, if someone tells me what they earn and it seems like a lot.....I assume they're boosting it to try and impress. If it seems like not enough.....then I KNOW they're actually raking in a LOT more. I like those people.

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Canada’s National Airlines React to the Federal Government’s Fall Economic Statement


OTTAWA, ON, Nov. 30, 2020 /CNW/ – The National Airlines Council of Canada, representing Canada’s largest air carriers, (Air Canada, Air Transat, Jazz Aviation LP and WestJet), issued the following statement by President and CEO Mike McNaney, in response to the Fall Economic update presented in the House of Commons today by Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland:

As the government has stated on previous occasions over the past several months and repeated in the Economic Statement today, it is still working on establishing a process with major airlines regarding financial assistance. 

Thus while other countries around the world moved forward months ago to provide sectoral support for airlines, Canada remains a global outlier and is ostensibly stuck at Stage Zero on the government planning process. This lack of action does not reflect the economic importance of the sector to Canada’s overall recovery, nor the need to ensure Canada’s largest carriers can continue to compete internationally.   

Due to the pandemic Canada has lost an astounding 85% of its air connectivity, with flights significantly reduced or eliminated in every region of the country as carriers take every measure possible to preserve finances and remain in operation.  While we note the government has affixed a $206 million budget to its support for regional air transportation, the government has yet to provide details of the new Regional Air Transportation Initiative and how such an initiative will, in practice, support the continued existence of regional air services. 

NACC members have spent years and invested billions of dollars building regional and international networks to create the level of connectivity needed to support hundreds of thousands of jobs across the country and in every sector of the economy.  Those jobs and investment are now being eroded, as is Canada’s ability to establish an overall path to recovery.

In addition to urgently addressing liquidity, we need the federal government to rapidly move forward with a clear and effective testing regime at airports to support the continued safe restart of the sector and address border and travel restrictions. NACC members and our airport partners have launched testing programs in Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver to enable science-based and data-based decision making concerning quarantine and testing measures. 

Governments around the world have provided their domestic aviation sectors approximately US$173 Billion in support, precisely because a healthy aviation industry is critical to overall economic recovery. We have also seen countries such as the United Kingdom embracing a science-based approach to testing and reducing quarantine measures.

As other countries continue to provide a clear path forward, now that the Fall Economic Statement has been issued it is time for the federal government to follow the global approach and move urgently to finalize Canada’s path to supporting financial assistance for airlines, and in turn ensure aviation can support Canada’s overall recovery.  Hundreds of thousands of jobs in communities large and small across the country, will be impacted by how the government proceeds. 


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CUPE asks the government to support struggling airline workers


Nov 27, 2020


CUPE joined a labour roundtable hosted by NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh and MP Scott Duvall on Friday to discuss the challenges facing workers in the airline and aerospace sectors, which have been ravaged by the economic fallout of COVID-19.

“The jobs lost in these sectors represent thousands of families who have lost their ability to put food on the table and keep a roof over their heads. We need immediate action now to save these jobs and help these families,” said Singh to open the discussion.

CUPE was represented by Chantale Grenon-Nyenhuis, Assistant Director of Organizing and Regional Services, who underscored the urgency of federal support for struggling airline workers. “The pandemic has hit our members hard,” said Grenon-Nyenhuis. “This industry and the tens of thousands of Canadian jobs that depend on it need a lifeline from the federal government yesterday.”

In addition to federal financial support for airline workers, CUPE has also lobbied the federal government to implement rapid testing at airports. Offering pre-boarding COVID-19 tests “would make flying safer for workers and the public alike, and also give peace of mind to Canadians who must continue to travel during the pandemic,” said Grenon-Nyenhuis.

“If there is no federal intervention, tens of thousands more jobs will be lost,” said Scott Duvall, the NDP’s critic for labour issues. Despite calls for help, our prime minister is nowhere to be seen.”

CUPE represents 15,000 flight attendants at nine different airlines across Canada. Roughly two-thirds of CUPE’s airline members are currently on furlough, awaiting a return to work.


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19 hours ago, UpperDeck said:

Agreed. And how much they pay monthly on their mortgage and taxes. That is all public information. How much income is declared is not generally available to the public. Unless....you are engaged in a marital dispute in which event, EVERYTHING is public.

And don’t some of us personally know. Not a good experience.

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Freeland says "detailed talks are underway with the airlines", while NACC says the Canadian Government is at "Stage Zero".  I know who I believe.

I honestly think Trudeau et al would prefer Canada to be a country connected by rail (no disrespect to rail folks- there's a place/requirement for rail in Canada too).

Hey Justin, Marc and Chrystia- 2020 just called and everyone is waiting for you to show up at the table.

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