Airline unions calling for rapid testing and bailouts to save their industry

Pearson airport

Labour leaders are calling on Ottawa to provide immediate financial aid and rapid viral testing to an airline industry devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The heads of two pilots' unions and Unifor asked the federal government on Thursday to offer carriers loans totalling $7 billion.

``The COVID-19 pandemic has created a crisis in Canada's aviation industry unlike anything seen before, and recovery may be years away,'' said Tim Perry, head of the Air Line Pilots Association's Canadian branch.

The 10-year credit plan being requested would include loan guarantees and direct financial aid but no grants, and would be commensurate with the support extended by other countries, they said.

The unions also asked Ottawa to back approval and deployment of rapid COVID-19 tests for passengers as a step toward easing travel restrictions and quarantine rules.

Governments across the globe have doled out $123 billion to assist the airline industry, said Unifor president Jerry Dias. Canada, on the other hand, has steered clear of sector-specific support, instead rolling out financial aid such as wage subsidies available to many industries.

Ottawa has also held off on requiring airlines to refund customers whose flights were cancelled due to the pandemic, potentially saving carriers hundreds of millions of dollars. In contrast, European and U.S. authorities have demanded airlines reimburse travellers, on top of the strings attached to financial lifelines that range from limiting dividends and executive bonuses to cutting carbon emissions and carving out ownership stakes for government.

Travel restrictions and dried-up demand continue to take a toll on the airline and tourism industries. More than than 30,000 employees have been laid off or furloughed at Air Canada and WestJet Airlines Ltd. Passenger numbers in Canada are down between 90 and 97 per cent since the outbreak, according to a recent study by Statistics Canada.

``We are in dire, dire straits. Air Canada is blowing through about $15 million a day in cash... That is completely unsustainable,'' said Dias, whose union represents 15,000 workers in the industry including pilots, baggage handlers and customers sales agents.

Dias applauded Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's government for extending the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy into next summer, but said it does not go far enough. Meanwhile a federal program that provides loans starting at $60 million to large firms ``just isn't working'' due to ``incredible restrictions'' and roughly eight per cent interest, he said.

In its throne speech last week, the Liberal government pledged to ``support regional routes,'' but has provided no details.

The National Airlines Council of Canada welcomed the plea from union leaders and backed their call for government adoption of a rapid testing regime as a critical step toward recovery, which remains in ``Stage Zero,'' president Mike McNaney said in a release.

Until March, Canada's airline industry employed about 240,000 workers and contributed nearly $37 billion in GDP, according to the unions.