An aircraft parked at Yellowknife Airport in early 2018. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio
Members of the union representing both First Air and Canadian North pilots are in Yellowknife this week as the two airlines prepare to merge.
Details of the merger were revealed last month. “The world is changing and we need to adapt to new realities,” Charlie Watt Sr, president of First Air owner Makivik, said at the time.
Brian Shury, vice-president of ALPA (Air Line Pilots’ Association) Canada, spoke to Cabin Radio’s Ollie Williams about the merger.
Ollie Williams: What brings you here?
Brian Shury: I was invited here by the First Air MEC, the Master Executive Council that represents the First Air pilots. They invited a number of us from the ALPA Canada board as well as from the United States – from airlines like United and Delta – to share our merger experiences with First Air and Canadian North pilots.
What kind of challenges does a merger pose, for pilots and for an association representing pilots? It creates a lot of uncertainty, I would imagine.
It does. There’s a lot of fear around mergers, typically. But the way the First Air and Canadian North pilots are approaching this is as a tremendous opportunity to bring their pilots together and speak with a unified, single voice. Although there’s a lot of uncertainty throughout the process, they will have a much stronger airline and a much stronger pilot group at the end of it.
Mergers are difficult. We work on a seniority system in the airline business. There are a lot of different ways to merge seniority lists – there is no perfect way to do it. The lucky thing is, within our pilots’ union, we have a lot of experience. ALPA has overseen about 300 mergers since 1931. We have a pretty good idea of what we’re doing. We have a lot of rules and guidelines that we follow, it’s a well-defined and understood process.
We anticipate this is going to be a huge assist to the companies. The pilots typically lead the other employee groups as well in terms of getting the merger done, accomplishing the main corporate objective of putting these two airlines together efficiently and safely.
Most people will look at this merger from the perspective of a passenger, worrying about things like ticket costs, which destinations remain available, whether the same number of planes will be in the air. From an industry point of view, what concerns have you picked up from northern pilots about what they’re thinking about the merger?
The pilots are excited about the merger. They see only good things coming out of this merger at the end of the day. Obviously, from a fare-paying customer point of view, there are concerns about fares potentially going up. There’s oversight on that, the Competition Bureau of Canada will have a look at this merger and ensure there is still going to be fair competition in the North. We anticipate there will be healthy competition in the North, even though First Air and Canadian North are obviously large players up here.
The mergers that I’ve gone through, the airline ends up being a stronger carrier. You are taking best practices, both on the corporate and pilot sides, and you end up with a much stronger carrier at the end of the day.
What are the timelines looking like for this?
The timelines are largely in the control of the company. We are able to efficiently move through the process of seniority integration and combining collective agreements, but it really is up to the company. We are able to adapt. Right now it’s early in the process; I don’t think the two companies have figured out where and when they are going to get this done, exactly. Once they have a clear idea of that – our process has already started, so we’re going to be ready to go when they’re ready to go.
Recently, southern-based airlines are starting to come north and essentially hold open houses for northern pilots looking for jobs. Our understanding there is already a global shortage of pilots. What does that picture look like?
Pilot supply problems are something we talk a lot about. What we’ve found is that if airlines compensate well, have decent benefits, those airlines have no problem attracting pilots.
In the North, it’s a unique situation. You’ve got a smaller population up here and I think what’s going to happen with this merger is, if Canadian North and First Air on their own are having trouble attracting pilots right now, they will probably – in my opinion – be in a stronger position at the end of this merger. There will probably me more job security and we anticipate excellent wages and working conditions as well.
One of the things a lot of folks are looking at is finding ways to attract and maintain local people to fly the airplane, so we don’t have this cycle of people coming from the south, staying for a year or two, then heading back to go fly at one of the larger carriers. Within ALPA we are huge believers that if you have security, solid wages and working conditions up here, you will attract local folks to train and fly the airplanes.
The other thing is the recruitment side is really quite lopsided. There is only about six or seven percent female participation in the industry. We are trying to change that as well, launching a number of programs to encourage more women to look at this as a career.
Being a pilot is often portrayed as a glamorous career. Why do you think it’s so hard to get new pilots?
What’s happened is, since deregulation in the US in 1978, and in Canada in the mid-80s, is pilot wages and working conditions have been on a downward trajectory. Young kids are pretty smart when they’re looking at career options. If you’re looking at being a commercial pilot, you’re also looking at medicine, engineering, law. Those other professionals are stable, predictable, and well-compensated. That has not been the case with flying. There is not a lot of stability and predictability. It’s a little bit like a casino – if you happen to hit the industry at the right time and get to a good airline, you’re lucky. But it’s not so glamorous when you’re working 18 to 20 days a month and you’re away from home for most of those days.