Canada: Summer travel surge has WestJet and Air Canada asking for volunteer help

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A surge in summer travel across the country has forced Canada's two biggest airlines to ask staff to help volunteer at airports to overcome staffing challenges — a move that is creating pushback from unions.

In an email to all employees, WestJet described how the rapid growth in passenger numbers is causing operational problems at several airports, including its flagship airport in Calgary.

The "growing pains of recovery requires all-hands-on-deck," read the message, which included an open call for any staff members to sign up to volunteer to help guests requiring wheelchair assistance at the Calgary International Airport.

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Meanwhile, Air Canada has needed extra personnel at Toronto's Pearson airport since "airport partners are stretched beyond their capacity, which led to significant flight cancellations and missed connections," read an internal memo.

In late August and early September, air passenger traffic reached its highest point since the pandemic began. The increase in business is critical to the aviation industry, which was devastated early on in the crisis as many countries restricted international travel.

The industry is not immune to the staffing challenges faced by many sectors as lockdowns started to lift; airlines continue to cope with changing government restrictions, while also following a variety of COVID-19 protocols at domestic and international airports.

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In the U.S., American Airlines and Delta Air Lines also asked staff to volunteer at airports this summer.

At Toronto's Pearson, the international arrival process can take up to three hours, as passengers are screened by Canada Border Services Agency and Public Health Agency of Canada agents, collect bags and possibly take a COVID-19 test.

"As the technology for sharing and displaying vaccine documents improves, passengers become more comfortable with the new process and vaccine-driven changes in border protections take effect, we hope to see further improvement in wait-time conditions in the terminals," a Pearson spokesperson said in an email statement, which highlighted other steps to reduce delays.

Air Passenger Traffic

Union objections

But several unions have advised their members to avoid volunteering for a variety of reasons.

CUPE, which represents flight attendants at WestJet, declined to comment. However, in a letter, it told members that "the company is imploring you to provide free, volunteer and zero-cost labour. THIS IS UNACCEPTABLE."

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The Air Line Pilots Association, which represents WestJet's pilots, also declined to comment. But in a message to members, it highlighted how "if you are injured doing this work, you may not be covered by our disability insurer."

Unifor, which represents customer service agents at both of Canada's major airlines, said its members were upset about the call for volunteers and the union wasn't happy that there wasn't any advanced warning or conservation.

"Take a group of workers that is already very stressed by the kind of operation that's going on, the quantity of passengers, the amount of extra processes that are in place because of COVID in order to travel — and then adding these pieces on is not helpful," said Leslie Dias, Unifor's director of airlines.

During the pandemic, WestJet decided to outsource the work of guest-service agents, who would help passengers that require wheelchairs, assist with check-in kiosks and co-ordinate lineups.

But the contractor is struggling to provide enough workers, said Dias, and that's why there was a call for volunteers.

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After flying more than 700 flights daily in 2019, WestJet flew as few as 30 some days during the pandemic. Currently, there are more than 400 flights each day.

"WestJet, as is the case across Canada and across many industries, faces continued issues due to labour hiring challenges as a result of COVID-19," said spokesperson Morgan Bell in an emailed statement.

"As WestJet looks ahead to recovery, we continue to work toward actively recalling and hiring company-wide, with the current expectation we will reach 9,000 fully trained WestJetters by the end of the year, which is more than twice as many WestJetters as we had at our lowest point in the pandemic some five months ago," she said.

Air Canada said it only asked salaried management to help volunteer at Pearson airport.

Unifor said the airline was short of workers because the company didn't have enough training capacity to accommodate recalled employees and couldn't arrange restricted-area passes on time.

Thousands of airline workers lost their jobs, were furloughed or faced wage reductions last year, although the carriers are bringing back workers as travel activity increases.

Returning staff

At WestJet, its customer service agents have been recalled, according to Unifor. Many employees in other positions, though, remain out of work, including about 500 furloughed pilots.

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Air Canada said it has been continually recalling employees since last spring, including more than 5,000 in July and August.

Asking for volunteers is an "unusual" occurrence in the industry, said Rick Erickson, an independent airline analyst based in Calgary. But he said it's not surprising since cutting a workforce is much easier than building it back up.

Airlines have to retrain staff, secure valid certification and security passes, and find new hires as well.

Erickson said he even spotted WestJet CEO Ed Sims helping at the check-in counter in Calgary in recent weeks, as passenger activity was at its peak so far this year.

"This has been the most challenging time, honestly, in civil aviation history; we've never, ever seen anything approaching 90 per cent of your revenues drying up," said Erickson, noting that airlines still have to watch their finances closely.

Ed Sims sitting in front of a window: WestJet CEO Ed Sims is shown at the airline's headquarters in Calgary. He's been helping at the check-in counter at the Calgary airport in recent weeks. © Kyle Bakx/CBC WestJet CEO Ed Sims is shown at the airline's headquarters in Calgary. He's been helping at the check-in counter at the Calgary airport in recent weeks.

Asking employees to volunteer isn't illegal, but it does raise some questions, said Sarah Coderre, a labour lawyer with Bow River Law LLP in Calgary.

"Whether or not it's fair, and the sort of position it puts the employees in, if they choose not to volunteer, that would be concerning for me from a legal standpoint," said Coderre.

Air Canada is currently operating at about 35 to 40 per cent of its 2019 flying capacity, but said one bright spot on the horizon is bookings for winter getaways toward the end of this year and the beginning of 2022.

"When looking to the sun leisure markets, we are very optimistic about our recovery," a spokesperson said by email. "We are currently observing demand growth that is above 2019 levels."

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