Economy

'This is a First Air takeover.' Canadian North staff fear loss of identity in merger

Canadian North and First Air are gradually becoming one northern airline, with the former's name and the latter's livery. The new airline says it wants to be "loved and admired within the North."

However, while the airline's executives sell the merger as a chance to "offer the best-possible service to the North while keeping costs down," its staff must bear the brunt of that commitment.

The merger, like most, is driven by financial goals. Both airlines long maintained their viability as solo entities in the North was questionable. They say becoming one Canadian North is the only way to maintain a worthwhile service to remote, northern communities.

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Yet some staff told Cabin Radio they feel unfairly treated, and uncertain of their futures, as the merger slowly proceeds.

Several employees of the "old" Canadian North, in particular, said the new airline no longer seems like their company.

"It feels like a First Air takeover, not a merger," said one employee. "They should have just hired us as First Air staff."

Seven current workers at the airline, in three communities, spoke to Cabin Radio on condition of anonymity for fear of losing their jobs – a fear some already possess as duplicate positions are rendered unnecessary.

For example, one staff member said the merged Canadian North now possesses many more check-in counter staff than it likely requires to operate efficiently. Cuts, they said, were a matter of time.

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Canadian North told Cabin Radio the airline is doing what it can to keep all employees happy in a period of change, and had made concessions in response to feedback.

Travel privileges

Concerns came to a head in the week leading up to November 1, an auspicious date for those overseeing the merger.

On that day, the merged Canadian North issued its first "unified flight schedule" – in which all flights were now marketed, and sold, by the new airline.

It took almost 18 months for the Makivik Corporation and Inuvialuit Development Corporation – owners of First Air and Canadian North respectively – to reach that point. They had announced their intention to merge in July 2018.

Transport Canada gave the merger federal approval this summer, with a set of strict conditions governing routes and prices but fewer terms related to how employees are looked after.

In August, Chris Avery – formerly First Air's boss, now the president and chief executive of Canadian North – and vice-president Andrew Pope confirmed jobs would be lost, but could not say how many.

On October 29, three days before the November 1 announcement of the unified flight schedule, Canadian North sent an email to staff entitled: "Announcement of integrated Canadian North Staff Travel."

The email set out the travel privileges employees could expect to receive as part of the new airline. The privileges would, like the schedule, come into effect on November 1.

Travel privileges – such as deeply discounted or free passes for family members – are a common perk of working for an airline. They are fiercely defended by those who have them. Many airline industry employees feel the perks make up for what may otherwise be low to mediocre salaries, particularly compared to those at, say, the territorial government.

When Canadian North announced its new travel privileges, some employees coming from the "old" Canadian North felt dismayed. To them, the new deal significantly cut back access to deeply discounted travel with their own airline.

What changed?

Staff members told Cabin Radio the new deal makes employees wait an extra five years to earn "lifetime pass" travel. Before November 1, if you worked full-time or part-time with Canadian North for 15 years, you earned lifelong travel privileges. That has now moved to 20 years, and staff who were about to hit the 15-year threshold must – in most cases – now work an extra five years to claim the pass.

There were also changes for casual staff.

Casuals at the "old" Canadian North had effectively unlimited access to deeply discounted travel on the company's planes, staff said. Now, the new rules demand casuals work 260 hours to earn each "family pass," which entitles the employee, their spouse, and dependents to a return trip (they must travel together).

All Canadian North casuals still have access to deep discounts with WestJet through a separate agreement. However, discounted travel with WestJet is not much use if you don't live in a community that airline serves. In the NWT, only Yellowknife is a WestJet destination.

Protesting to senior managers, some staff said the new rules made family passes "almost unachievable" for casuals working in certain communities. (As of February, Cabin Radio understands Canadian North had around 30 casual staff in Yellowknife and 55 in smaller northern communities. The airline did not disclose exact numbers when asked.)

We obviously understand that in a period of integration of two companies in a merger setting, there will be a lot of change for everyone involved.

DAN VALIN, CANADIAN NORTH

Managers are believed to have discussed how to handle a potential widespread loss of casual staff. Many casuals take the work in their spare time (some are territorial government workers by day), looking to access travel privileges in communities where flights are prohibitively expensive.

The kicker for some "old" Canadian North staff was, they said, that their First Air equivalents never previously enjoyed access to anything like the same travel privileges. Some felt privileges they were promised on joining – a hallmark of employment with Canadian North – had been significantly watered down to improve the prospects of incoming First Air employees.

"Morale had been pretty good leading up to November 1," said one employee. "On October 29 [when the travel privileges email was sent], morale went out the door."

Another staff member said the airline had started to "no longer feel like a family."

To some staff, the change was symptomatic of a sensation that First Air – from the president's office down – was consuming Canadian North, with little remaining of the old airline's ethos but the name. (The Canadian North bear logo has gone, replaced by First Air's logo and colour scheme.)

A pilot in the merged airline, granted anonymity to comment on a subject they were not authorized to discuss, said the merger was widely interpreted within both airlines as being driven by First Air.

"It is a takeover. Come on," the pilot told Cabin Radio. "Seventy-percent First Air? It's not a merger."

Pilots are said to be feeling fewer effects from the merger, not least because a worldwide shortage of pilots ensures jobs abound. Merging of the pilot lists at the two airlines – an important feature of any air carrier, as the list determines seniority – is understood to still be some way off.

'A more level playing field'

Approached for comment by Cabin Radio, Canadian North said it believed only some employees viewed the changes in a negative light. The company denied staff from "old" Canadian North were being treated differently to those coming in from First Air.

"The way that these changes affect everyone will be very individual, based on their situation. We have also received the feedback that in the case of some employees in Yellowknife, they feel that the change is a net negative," said Dan Valin, Canadian North's communications and marketing manager, by email.

"We’ve also received feedback from others on the 'old Canadian North' team that are very excited about the new privileges available to them," Valin wrote. "Offering only the most comprehensive elements of each carrier’s policy was not a feasible option – so we did our best to balance priorities and continue to offer what we feel is a competitive program.

"We understand that some team members are not happy with this change, but we can assure you that nothing we’ve done is targeted at our Canadian North team members. In fact, these changes are designed to bring everyone onto a more level playing field."

The airline said most casuals in smaller communities would still "be able to access multiple round-trip flights" each year based on their expected hours of work.

Canadian North said the new travel privileges would ensure employees were treated "more equitably" but acknowledged it had taken at least one step to sweeten the initial offer.

"We have listened to the feedback and adjusted our approach to provide an initial allotment of two family passes to each Canadian North casual team member in recognition of their past service," Valin wrote. "As further changes are required in the time ahead, we’ll continue to take a balanced approach and listen to feedback.

"When it comes to morale of employees, we obviously understand that in a period of integration of two companies in a merger setting, there will be a lot of change for everyone involved.

"Change is difficult for any individual in this type of situation and we are committed to working with all of our employee groups to not only find equitable working situations but to ensure our employees are fulfilled and engaged in their work environment. We encourage all of our employees to communicate with their groups and management to have open dialogue on issues."

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