Air Canada customer service agents walk off the job, causing delays

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Striking Air Canada workers demonstrate today near St. John's International Airport. — Photo by Joe Gibbons/The Telegram

TORONTO — A strike by Air Canada’s customer service agents and other airport workers caused minor delays Tuesday morning, but union members predict travellers will face longer lineups and wait times as the walkout goes on.

Some 3,800 employees went on strike just after midnight Eastern Time after talks between their union and the airline failed to reach an agreement.

At Canada’s largest airport, Pearson International in Toronto, arriving travellers were greeted by several striking workers waving banners.

The workers were occupying a large section of the sidewalk outside the busy terminal, but were not impeding access to the facility.

Inside, Air Canada staff and managers were assisting travellers and guiding them toward self-serve kiosks.

Lineups at the kiosks grew longer as the morning went on.

“It looks good right now,” said Dawn Moreau, an Air Canada customer service agent for 34 years. “Is it going to stay this way? No.”

“We’re on Tuesday morning, it’s probably the slowest morning of the week. You get into your afternoon shifts, you get into your evening shifts, you get into snowball effects down the line.”

About a dozen flights were delayed or cancelled by mid-morning, but the airline said those changes are “within the norms of a typical summer day.”

“Our contingency plan is working as we expected it would,” said spokesman Peter Fitzpatrick.

In Atlantic Canada, the airline said operations were typical of a Tuesday morning.

“Which means at times there are some cancellations and delays but we don’t see any unusual numbers at this time,” said spokeswoman Isabelle Arthur.

The Canadian Auto Workers union said negotiations went down to the wire but there was no common ground on the key issues of pensions and wages.

“The whole bargaining committee is disappointed because I can tell you our objective was not to have a strike, our objective was to have a deal,” union president Ken Lewenza told The Canadian Press.

Lewenza said he was particularly frustrated because discussions seemed to progress positively through Monday in the run up to the strike deadline, but the airline’s position on the employee pension plan proved too much of a barrier for the union.

“For them to stick to their position after considerable debate is surprising and disappointing,” he said. “I don’t think Air Canada put the customers front and centre on this particular dispute.”

Representatives from Air Canada (TSX:AC.B) did not respond to requests for comment on the strike Tuesday.

But in a statement issued after the walkout began, Air Canada chief operating officer Duncan Dee said the airline is “very disappointed that an agreement for a new contract has not been reached.”

Dee said the airline is ready “to resume discussions at any time to achieve a negotiated settlement.”

In the interim, said Dee, the airline has a contingency plan in place involving more than 1,700 managers to assist at airports and call centres.

“We will continue to operate our full schedule and all bookings will be honoured,” he said.

The airline urged passengers to check its website because a high volume of calls could make for a long wait to get through to its call centres, which are largely operated by employees who have now walked off the job.

Technology is also expected to help since self-service tools on the website can be used for making bookings along with self-service check-in at airports.

Despite the airline’s contingency plans however, Federal Labour Minister Lisa Raitt has said she’s concerned about the potential impact of a work stoppage on Canadians and on Canada’s economic recovery.

Meanwhile, Lewenza said the union would continue to reach out to Air Canada to try to come to an agreement both sides were happy with.

“We want a deal,” he said, adding that striking employees would be back at their post as soon as an acceptable agreement was reached.

“We have a responsibility to push for an agreement because it’s in the interests of our members of course, but more importantly it’s in the interests of the customers who need the services of Air Canada.”

Organizations: Air Canada, Pearson International, Isabelle Arthur.The Canadian Auto Workers union TSX

Geographic location: TORONTO, Canada

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