Winnipeg’s rekindled pride over the return of its Jets has been dampened by Air Canada’s decree that the city’s downtown core isn’t a safe place for airline staff to spend the night.
Mayor Sam Katz is puzzled by the decision by the national air carrier to stop using the Radisson Hotel, one block from the hockey arena, for pilot and flight attendant layovers. An internal company bulletin to staff cited “several reports indicating questionable safety” in the area and noted concern from workers. Public drunkenness, the airline contended, made several downtown locations “susceptible to crimes of violence and opportunity.”
Mr. Katz believes the decision was motivated by cost-cutting. Air Canada has been conducting a general safety assessment, with help from the Winnipeg Police, he said. It is not yet complete.
“There’s more to this than meets the eye,” Mr. Katz said. “The reasons [Air Canada has]given don’t appear to be valid. It’s a strange situation.”
While Air Canada has an office building and numerous employees located just two blocks away, with the airline’s red logo prominent above Portage Avenue, the company has decided staff flying into the city are safer at the Sandman Hotel by the airport.
The decision was lambasted by officials and citizens in Winnipeg and declared “ridiculous” by Air Canada’s own pilots. Air Canada staff stay in downtown accommodations in cities throughout the world, a clause that is actually written into its union contracts.
“The notion that the entire downtown area of Winnipeg is unsafe is quite frankly ridiculous,” said Captain Paul Strachan, president of the Air Canada Pilots Association.
“One that jumps to my mind is Sao Paolo, where I’ve been frequently. We stay in the core and it’s a far less safe city than Winnipeg.”
An Air Canada spokesman, in a written statement, said the airline’s decision was based on “an abundance of caution.” He would not say specifically why it decided to abandon downtown Winnipeg. The internal bulletin to staff, dated Sept. 23, vaguely pointed to “1,000 displaced people from rural Manitoba.” It is not clear whether this group is related to flood damage earlier this year. One source said a pilot recently had his luggage stolen from in front of the Radisson.
The airline’s move has emerged in the final days of a provincial election campaign; the vote is Tuesday. Crime is among the top issues and gangs have been a long-standing problem, with a spate of murders this year. In total, 32 people have been murdered in Winnipeg so far this year, up 45 per cent from all of 2010, and the homicide rate is set to eclipse the record of 34 killings in 2004.
Polls rank crime as the No. 2 issue in the provincial election campaign, behind health care, and the results also show Premier Greg Selinger and the governing NDP ahead of challengers Hugh McFadyen and the Progressive Conservatives. Voters favour the NDP on health care but back the Conservatives on crime.
The NDP on Sunday said they were disappointed by and disagreed with the Air Canada decision.
Mr. McFadyen, whose party is trying to capitalize on the crime issue, said violent crime is a stain on the province and Winnipeg, a situation that he says is worsening while it improves elsewhere in Canada.
During a mid-September leaders debate in the early evening at a downtown mall, Mr. McFadyen said there were two assaults on the premises while the event took place. He said the area is less safe at night.
“It’s one thing during the day, but a lot of people have a sense that it’s pretty dangerous place in the evenings and through the night,” he said.
On Twitter on Sunday, the Air Canada crime question was debated. James O’Connor, managing editor of the Brandon Sun, complained about “drunks and beggars downtown” on a weekend trip to the provincial capital.
“Didn’t feel safe at all with my wife,” Mr. O’Connor said in a tweet on Sunday.
Stefano Grande, director of the downtown business association, said crime in Winnipeg is in decline, even with the high murder rate.
He said the association has recently added more safety staff to patrol downtown and this summer met with Air Canada officials, whom he said were “quite impressed” with the efforts.
“The public has a legitimate concern to talk about crime,” said Mr. Grande. “We want our neighbours to be safe, where our kids can walk down any street. But quite frankly all of our surveys tell us that the general public is optimistic about our downtown and where it’s headed. There are social issues downtown – panhandling is one of them – but those are social issues, those aren’t crime.”
Officials from the union that represents Air Canada’s flight attendants did not return calls for comment.
Capt. Strachan grew up in Winnipeg and said the airline’s decision has cast an unfairly negative light on the city. He said the pilots’ union would work to change the situation.
“We feel bad for the City of Winnipeg and their citizens – whatever embarrassment this causes the city, we regret it.”