Snow snarls airport traffic in St. John’s

Andrew Robinson
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Airport authority accuses union of not complying with essential services agreement

Travellers check the arrival and departure boards at St. John’s International Airport Sunday. Both screens showed a large number of delayed flights. — Photo by Gary Hebbard/The Telegram

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.”


Waiting game

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

50-60 km/h.

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.

Twitter: @TeleAndrew


Organizations: Environment Canada, International Airport, Air Canada Union of Canadian Transportation Employees Local Canada Industrial Relations Board Trans Canada Highway

Geographic location: Ottawa, Edmonton, Toronto

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Recent comments

  • Pissed
    December 18, 2012 - 10:45

    FIRE THEM ALL. They are scum just trying to use passengers in their sick plight to greediness!!!

  • Sanford
    December 17, 2012 - 12:48

    Allow, say, half an hour for employees to respond to 'weather call-in'; then hire independant individuals on short term contract.

  • Strike Sucks
    December 17, 2012 - 10:57

    Unions are like cancer. They may not kill people, but they can kill the public's respect for the company and maybe even eventually lead to the company's demise thanks. Just goes to show what selfishness and greed can do.

  • Robb
    December 17, 2012 - 09:14

    What a load.....unions will be a thing of the past..........they use all the tactics but cry fowl when they don't get their way........the greed and the laziness is just sickening. I say, pull a Ronald the works and bring in new workers under a new law called "Right to work"........well, that's is what is happening in the states, and it will only be a matter of time before this mentality get rid of the scabs of labour.....hopefully then we can get people who actually want to work and appreciate their pay.

  • Get With Reality
    December 17, 2012 - 08:36

    What the union's tactic is, in this case, creating a major impact so that they can get what they're fighting for much faster. That doesn't really work. Besides, the airport authority, as well as other companies, are on to such schemes. History has proven that workers walk off the job and wait for something bad to happen so that the company can get a rude awakening and force the company to give in to their demands. The fact is, the union thinks they have the money to give them what they want, and really they do not. And even if they do, they have to spend it on other stuff, such as expansion, which does take priority. Really what will the outcome be for such rude awakenings? Back-to-work legislation with a smaller pay hike, or nothing at all and the strike continuing. The company will likely act as if they would say to the union "Nice try, you fail". Not to mention that if they got what they are fighting for, where will most of that 58% pay hike go to? You got it: TAXES.

  • ger
    December 17, 2012 - 07:40

    The key phrase here is " whatever resourses they could get hold of " Of course if people don't answer their phones etc. then they can't be called in. Also, if the airport is so short equipment etc. then why is there not a major problem keeping the runways open when there isn't a strike??

  • Another pawn
    December 17, 2012 - 07:14

    “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.” Typical union rersponse. How many operators do you think airport management were actually able to "get a hold of"?