TORONTO — A revamp of the LEEFF program, rapid testing and aid for Canada’s pilots are urgent big-ticket items that the federal government needs to address following yesterday’s budget presentation, says Unifor’s Jerry Dias.
Speaking exclusively with Travelweek this morning, Dias, the National President of Unifor, which represents roughly 12,900 members in the air transportation sector, shared his thoughts on the 2021 federal budget, Canada’s first in two years and presented yesterday by Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland.
A total of $101.4 billion in new spending will be used to support the country throughout the pandemic, however, Freeland made no mention of sector-specific support for Canada’s airline industry.
This, says Dias, shouldn’t be a concern as many conversations are currently taking place behind the scenes.
“If the question is whether the government is leaving the airline industry to flounder, the answer is no,” he tells Travelweek. “Last week, of course, was the announcement of $5.8 billion to Air Canada and I know there are conversations happening right now with WestJet. Sunwing has also accessed the LEEFF (Large Employer Emergency Financing Facility) program and an agreement with NavCanada, (representing air traffic control, flight information and aeronautical services) was made last week that includes a partial solution to cancelling layoffs and reopening towers in remote communities.
“I know all this is going on behind the scenes but there are still some things we need to make sure happens,” says Dias. “I am optimistic about the future – cargo, of course is solid and will remain solid. But the aspect of the industry that moves passengers is going to struggle for years to come, and that’s the reality of today.”
Here is our interview with Dias in full:
Q. What more can be done for Canada’s airlines?
DIAS: “The Air Canada issue is resolved but we need more work to be done with Sunwing, which I know accessed the government’s LEEFF program. But I still argue that the LEEFF program is a disaster. You can get better interest rates from a loan shark than you can from the federal government through the program, which I think starts at 5% then goes up to 8% then 10% then 12% and 14%. It’s outrageous.
“Based on the Air Canada announcement with the federal government, there were interest rates from a low of 1.2%. I would say the majority of the money will probably be loans from anywhere between 2.2%-2.9%. So we already know that the government has lowered the interest rates for the industry from those previously offered under LEEFF. I would expect if they can do those interest rates for Air Canada, there’s no reason they can’t do it for WestJet, Sunwing, Flair and others.
“The Air Canada announcement was made pre-budget, which to me signals that the government is going to find company-specific solutions in the airline industry.”
Q. Many of Unifor’s members are pilots. What is the federal government doing for them specifically?
DIAS: “One thing that the budget doesn’t entail is what to do about pilots who are in the process of losing their certification. Pilots need three touchdowns and takeoffs every 90 days to maintain their certification. We need to make sure that there’s some training money available to keep workers ready for takeoff.”
Q. What about women? A large portion of Canada’s travel industry is comprised of women – how is the new budget helping them?
DIAS: “The majority of members that I represent in the airline sector are women. While pilots and maintenance are predominantly men, customer sales and service agents are predominantly made up by women. Flight attendants too – 70% of my members who work at Air Canada are women.
“I will argue that the federal government’s new $30 billion national childcare plan will be the biggest thing that it can do for working women and my members in the industry. The airline industry is a 24/7 operation that’s predominantly women, so childcare is what the government can do the most for these workers.”
Q. What were some of the positive changes in the federal budget that will help the airline industry?
DIAS: “One of the key things in the new budget is the extension of the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS) program, which is huge for the industry.
“The other key takeaway is the commitment on contract flipping because airport workers are the ones who get screwed the most by it. For example, the Greater Toronto Airports Authority (GTAA) will award a contract from one company to another because the company will underbid the vendor that had the work before. The vendor that now gets the work hires the employees from the previous vendor because they’re trained, but then pays them less. This is rampant at airports across the country. What the federal government is now saying is if the contract flips, you can’t cut the workers’ wages. This, I argue, will impact tens of thousands of workers across the country, from baggage handlers to those working in parking garages. We’ve been pushing for this for years.”
Q. What are the next steps needed to help airlines in their recovery?
DIAS: “The situation for airlines is dire. Bottom line, the struggles in the airline industry is going to be prolonged for another four to five years, if you listen to the analysts. The only way that anything starts to regain a semblance of normalcy is going to be vaccinations in arms.
“We also still don’t have a real global strategy as it relates to air travel. Will it be proof of vaccination before getting on a plane, or rapid testing prior to boarding, or getting tested again when getting off the plane? We need all of these things, I argue. There should be proof of vaccination and we need rapid testing. When it comes to technological advances, we’re better off today than we were a year ago. We now have tests that will let you know within 10 minutes whether you test positive or negative. We really need to straighten up the mess at airports as it relates to rapid testing.”