Many travellers looking to get out of St. John’s on Sunday — with Christmas just a little more than a week away — were left with limited options after a heavy snowfall caused multiple flight cancellations and lengthy delays.
Environment Canada reported that 25 centimetres of snow accumulated at St. John’s International Airport from Saturday afternoon to midday Sunday.
The St. John’s Airport Authority’s ability to clear the runways may have been affected by the ongoing strike by 85 maintenance workers looking for higher wages.
They have been off the job since Sept. 11.
All flights scheduled to depart from St. John’s between 5 a.m. and just before 1 p.m. were either cancelled or delayed. Some of those delays lasted for more than 10 hours.
There were long lineups leading to the customer service counters for Air Canada and WestJet, while other stranded passengers sat, slept, or searched for refreshments.
Chris Bussey, a spokesman for the Union of Canadian Transportation Employees Local 90916 negotiating committee, said that six essential services staff were called in to deal with the snow.
The airport authority is permitted to call in those striking employees under the essential services agreement.
However, the airport authority claimed that the union failed to comply with the agreement.
In a statement released late Sunday, it said the union “failed to co-operate, resulting in fewer resources available than the weather conditions warranted.”
This created problems for runway maintenance, leading to the airfield’s closure during “peak heavy snowfall.”
The airport authority said it will take its concerns regarding the union’s alleged failure to comply with the essential services agreement to the Canada Industrial Relations Board on Monday and request an immediate hearing.
Bussey refuted the airport authority’s claims.
“That’s absolutely incorrect,” he said. “We co-operated. We allowed them to call in whatever resources they could get a hold of. The fact is, they’re underprepared for the winter.”
Even if the strike had not taken place, Bussey doubts it would have made a difference for the cancelled and delayed flights.
“They have a major shortage in their snow plow operators. They’re operating on about half of what they normally operate on in the winter’s schedule because of recruitment and retention problems.”
He added that recruitment and retention problems have persisted in relation to mechanics because of unattractive wages.
“What they have under the essential services act is likely what they would have anyway, because their staff is dwindling away.”
Memorial University students Amanda Fralick and Marissa Ryan were both hoping to get home to Ottawa Sunday. Ryan arrived at the airport at 6:30 a.m., but as of 3 p.m., she did not know when she would be able to fly home.
“I looked online this morning before I left,” said Ryan. “My flight was supposed to leave at 7:30 a.m. I looked online at 6 a.m., and it said it was on time. I got here at 6:30, and they said it was delayed two hours. I was fine with that — two hours is nothing — and then they announced it was cancelled at 9 a.m.”
Gathering her inability to leave St. John’s may have been affected by the strike, Fralick said she was not prepared to blame either side for her own predicament.
“It is exhausting,” she said of being stranded. “Personally, I think strikes solve nothing.”
Randy and Debbie Vaslett had to drive from the Burin Peninsula in order to catch an early morning flight they were hoping to take to Edmonton to surprise family there.
“Between the weather and the strike, and there’s so many people travelling — that doesn’t help,” said Randy Vaslett, whose flight was delayed until 4:30 p.m. “It could be worse — we could be stuck in Toronto.”
On Friday, airport authority president and CEO Keith Collins announced a hotel room had been booked in St. John’s for Tuesday and had invited the union's chief negotiator and bargaining team and a federal mediator to resume negotiations there. Earlier last week,
St. John’s City Council passed a resolution urging both sides to return to the bargaining table.
Bussey was not sure whether Sunday’s events would have any effect on the likelihood of getting a deal done.
“We’re looking for assurances that the airport authority is going to the table without and preconditions on bargaining, and we’re hoping that they’re serious in trying to reach a negotiated settlement that will end the strike, but we have no assurances yet that they’re looking at the mayor’s resolutions seriously with regards to no preconditions on bargaining.”
He said if the airport does not settle the situation soon, more delays can be expected over the course of the winter.
“Even if the strike ends now, I don’t know how they’re going to survive the rest of the winter until they are able to recruit some staff, and the staff they recruit are obviously going to have a lot of training to do as well.”
In downtown St. John’s, between 10-15 centimetres of snow accumulated. Early Sunday morning, Avalon East District RCMP advised road conditions on the Trans-Canada Highway were slippery, with traffic moving at a rate between
For travellers worried about the days leading up to Dec. 25, they can perhaps breathe a little easy — Environment Canada is calling for almost no snow between now and then. A spokesman advised that such projections are, of course, subject to change.