A union representing Canadian cargo pilots slammed a U.S. counterpart for criticism of employer Cargojet (TSX: CJT) over alleged efforts to undermine stricter duty-time regulations aimed at reducing fatigue, saying the remarks constitute interference in ongoing bargaining and a self-serving attempt to peel away its members.
The Air Line Pilots Association on Friday sent letters to the management of Cargojet and Unifor, Canada’s large private sector union, challenging them to stop what it claimed were attempts to weaken new Canadian hours-of-service rules that went into effect in December.
“To have the president of ALPA preach from Virginia to our pilots on the bargaining committee about fatigue rules and safety is condescending, arrogant and disrespectful,” said Jerry Dias in a written response to ALPA’s public statement and letters.
ALPA’s president “knows full well that 130 Canadian pilots stand to lose their jobs, and he is standing by to take their dues if operations move to the U.S., where Congress has exempted cargo airline operators from some fatigue rules, giving them a competitive advantage over Canadian operators.”
Cargojet CEO Ajay Virmani last week said the all-cargo airline is exploring ways to establish a foothold in the U.S., possibly by making a minority investment in an asset-light airline that needs an established player to operate aircraft.
Cargojet operates a domestic overnight network for Amazon (NASDAQ: AMZN), DHL (DXE: DPW) and Purolator, with its airplanes also carrying interline traffic from international airlines. It also offers aircraft leasing and international charter service. It has more than two dozen widebody aircraft in its fleet.
Unifor Local 7378 said its pilots are in the process of voting on a tentative agreement with Cargojet and have no intention of allowing unsafe flight and duty time regulations.
“To suggest that our committee would agree to any exemption not based on safety and fatigue science is another example of an American association trying to interfere with our democratic collective bargaining process,” said Local 7378 Chairperson Mike Powers.
The new work rules increase rest time for all commercial pilots in Canada, bringing the nation in line with international standards. Annual flying time is now capped at 1,000 hours instead of 1,200 and pilots must rest 12 hours, up from eight, between shifts.
ALPA said it learned that Cargojet is seeking exemptions from the rules and alleged it is engaging in intimidating tactics to influence pilots to support the request.
“I am deeply troubled that Cargojet may be using the threat of layoffs and downgrades to convince pilots to support this plan that would weaken safety and put pilots at risk, this coming at a time when your airline has reported significant profits,” President Joe DePete said in his letter to Virmani. “The regulations in place today are the culmination of years of work and collaboration among all stakeholders in our industry.”
Cargojet reported a net profit of US$68.4 million in the first quarter. It benefited from a tight supply of aircraft and rising demand for e-commerce shipments.
ALPA, which represents Air Transat at several other Canadian air carriers, also chided Unifor for allegedly going along with Cargojet’s scheme.
“With four months of operating experience, we can say that our members have reported that these science-based rules, while not perfect, represent a significant improvement over the previous set of regulations in Canada. Any exemption, waiver or weakening of them would undermine safety and be a slap in the face to those who fought so hard to have them enacted in the first place,” DePete wrote to Dias.
“The debate over whether pilots should be protected from management abuse and forced to work when it’s unsafe to do so is over, and it’s time to move forward. No one – especially a trade unionist – should be trying to make it easier for management to put workers in harm’s way, particularly when that management has reported significant profits during the most recent quarter of operations,” DePete said.
The outspoken Dias, whose union also represents autoworkers in Canada, fired back over the weekend.
“ALPA is today raiding our pilots at Flair Air and this smells like a poorly disguised attempt to raid our pilots by an association that for decades had no interest in smaller operations such as Cargojet or Flair, deemed too small for their corporate model, and now that the pandemic caused mass layoffs, ALPA is hitting new lows. It’s clearly an association and not a union,” said Dias.
Unifor has been extremely active in pressing the Canadian government for a national plan to reopen air travel and support the aviation industry, while ALPA has been mostly absent from the debate, he added.
Cargojet has said the anti-fatigue rules will increase costs, but concerns about a pilot shortage have receded with the COVID pandemic amid severe downsizing by struggling passenger airlines.
Cargojet began recruiting and training additional pilots, in anticipation of the new rule, during the second half of 2019. It entered into a new five-year contract with its pilots in July 2018 that raises compensation by about 20% and commits both parties not to strike or implement a lockout. A year later, the Canadian carrier introduced a retention bonus to all pilots and extended the Unifor contract by 36 months to mid-2026 in an effort to reduce attrition and meet its staffing requirements under the law.
In late 2019, Cargojet began applying a surcharge to transportation invoices to cover the additional cost of recruiting, training and retaining pilots because of the government’s action.