With passenger traffic reaching its highest point since the pandemic began, Canadian airlines are asking staff to volunteer at airports. A surge in summer air travel has prompted Canada’s two biggest airlines Air Canada and WestJet, to ask their team members to help overcome employee shortages by volunteering to work at airports.
In an email asking for “all hands on deck,” WestJet has described how a summer surge in passenger numbers is causing operational problems at several airports, including Calgary International Airport (YYC). In the email, WestJet asks its employees to volunteer and help passengers who require wheelchair assistance. WestJet and Air Canada are following what several airlines in the United States did to help overcome staff shortages.
Screening can take three hours at YYZ
Air Canada, meanwhile, says that its partners at Toronto Pearson International Airport (YYZ) are stretched beyond their limits, leading to delays and cancelations. At Canada’s biggest airport (YYZ), the screening process, and luggage pick-up for people arriving on international flights can take up to three hours.
A Toronto International Airport statement, shared by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), says:
“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.”
Airlines have had to constantly shift staffing requirements to cope with ever-changing government restrictions like many other companies. As conditions eased in August, they were unprepared for the number of people who wanted to travel and are now looking for volunteers to ease the burden.
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The unions are not happy
Several of Canada’s airline employee unions have told their members not to volunteer for various reasons. WestJet flight attendant union CUPE told its members in a letter the following:
“The company is imploring you to provide free, volunteer, and zero-cost labor. THIS IS UNACCEPTABLE.”
Customer service agents union Unifor which represents workers at Air Canada and WestJet, says that its members were upset about the call for volunteers and that there had been no advanced warning. When speaking about airlines asking for volunteers, Leslie Dias, Unifor’s director of airlines, said:
“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.”
WestJet outsourced jobs
When air travel was slow during the height of the pandemic, WestJet decided to outsource passenger assistance work to other companies. According to Dias, the contractor awarded the contract is now struggling to provide enough workers, which is why WestJet is asking for volunteers.
Before the pandemic, WestJet was flying more than 700 flights a day. In 2020 this number declined to as little as 30 flights per day. Now, however, with COVID-19 restrictions eased, they are back up to around 400 daily flights.
When speaking about the current situation in a company statement, WestJet spokesperson Morgan Bell said:
“WestJet, as is the case across Canada and across many industries, faces continued issues due to labor hiring challenges as a result of COVID-19. 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.”
Regarding its call for volunteers, Air Canada said that it had only asked salaried management employees to volunteer and not hourly-paid workers.
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