In a show of unity, more than 200 aviation workers demonstrated Tuesday on Parliament Hill, calling on the federal government to release a plan to safely restart the industry crushed by COVID-19.
Holding “SOS” and “mayday” signs, grounded pilots, flight attendants, airport staff and other aviation workers repeated their calls for financial help for the airline sector, including low-cost, long-term loans for their airlines. The workers also want Canada to ease travel restrictions through rapid testing at airports and end the 14-day quarantine period when entering the country.
COVID-19 has crippled the industry and cut back operations dramatically. Major airlines have scaled back regional routes and announced major layoffs. This week, Air Transat said it’s cutting half of its remaining flight attendants.
Protesting aviation workers aimed their soaring anxiety and anger at Canada’s Transport Minister Marc Garneau.
Air Transat captain Jeffrey Daniels raised a placard over his head with an image of Garneau with a Where’s Waldo hat. Daniels said he’s been flying jets for more than 20 years and was recently laid off, brought back for three months and received another layoff notice this week.
He calls the situation a train wreck. Daniels said he’s upset more than six months have gone by and Garneau is still studying options for help, but hasn’t publicly released the possibilities.
“It’s just a terrible feeling of uncertainty,” said Daniels. “We don’t know what the plan is. Many of us are just lost.”
At several points, the crowd chanted “Where’s Garneau? Where’s Garneau?”
Garneau was invited to the rally but didn’t attend because he is located in Montreal, a COVID red zone, and is limiting his travel, according to a letter he sent the organizer. His office said Garneau is “actively working to put forward solutions.”
“Our government is working very hard to achieve this in a timely way, and what will be decided will be in the best interest of Canadians,” said Garneau’s press secretary Livia Belcea in a statement to CBC News.
Dwane Mightley, a flight attendant with Air Transat who hasn’t worked since March, said he’s sick of waiting. He said it’s been “painful” and “devastating” to live off the wage subsidy which covers his family’s childcare.
“It’s been demoralizing when you think something is going to be done, they’re going to be coming out with some positive news,” said Mightley.
“It’s always we’re waiting, we’re waiting, we’re talking. But there’s been no action.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said there has been action and on Tuesday pointed to the wage subsidy program, which has “delivered over a billion dollars in support to Canada’s major airlines.”
“It has been significant and important to keep these airlines going,” said Trudeau at a news conference.
Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland also said she spoke to the heads of major Canadian airlines and with unions last week.
“It’s definitely an issue that we are looking at closely and working on,” said Freeland at the news conference.
The Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) said it has been “respectfully lobbying for targeted support” for the industry for more than half a year.
“We did not receive any firm commitment from the government with respect to targeted support for the airline industry, and right now words are simply not enough,” said ALPA Canada President Tim Perry. “Each week we are seeing pilot cuts, and the Transat pilots are the latest victims of this ongoing saga and why federal assistance is needed even more urgently.”
CBC News has reported the federal government is finalizing plans to subsidize some airlines to re-establish flights to regional airports across the country. Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs Dominic LeBlanc told CTV News the government is discussing taking a stake in major Canadian airlines to help save them.
Bloc Québécois transport critic Xavier Barsalou-Duval argues the crowd on Parliament Hill on Tuesday shows the government has “failed.”
“These people are angry and need to be listened to,” he told CBC News at the rally. “The signal the government sends to them is that they’re not that important. I think it’s important that Mr. Garneau hears them and that action comes for the air transportation industry.”
He’s calling for an industry-specific aid for airlines, which has been one of the sectors hardest hit by the pandemic. He also presented a petition to Parliament on Monday with more than 30,000 signatures calling on the government to refund passengers for flights cancelled due to COVID-19.
Lyne Gaboury, a flight attendant for more than 30 years, said workers have never seen anything like this and deserve answers.
“I’ve never been this scared in my life,” she said.