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Air Canada planes parked at Toronto Pearson Airport on April 28, 2021. Air Canada and the union representing its 4,500 pilots began contract talks this week.Carlos Osorio/Reuters

Contract talks kicked off this week between Air Canada and the union representing its 4,500 pilots, bargaining the union hopes will bring big wage gains to keep pace with the significant raises won by counterparts at WestJet Airlines and U.S. carriers.

Charlene Hudy, head of the Air Line Pilots Association at the airline, said she is aiming for higher pay and better working conditions amid a scarcity of pilots.

Pilots at Canada’s largest airline are in the ninth of a 10-year deal that provides annual raises of about 2 per cent. Air Canada Pilots Association members voted to fold their union into ALPA, which represents 73,000 North American pilots, and triggered a clause to enter contact talks one year early.

“Air Canada pilots have been working with an outdated contract,” Ms. Hudy said. “Now it is time for a collective agreement that closes the gap between other ALPA-represented pilot groups and our pilot group.”

WestJet’s 1,800 pilots, represented by ALPA, recently ratified a four-year deal that raises wages by 24 per cent over the life of the contract. Pilots at Delta Air Lines in March approved a four-year contract with 34-per-cent wage hikes. Pilots at United Airlines have been offered an even richer deal, Reuters reported, as the busy summer travel season gets under way.

Pilots at U.S. discount carrier Spirit Airlines approved a contract that raises pay by 27 per cent over the next two years. JetBlue Airways pilots in January voted for a contract with 21.5-per-cent wage hikes over 18 months. FedEx pilots in July will vote on a contact that provides 30-per-cent raises.

An Air Canada spokesman declined to comment on the negotiations. “The current agreement, which has been in place for nearly a decade, is a testament to the productive relationship we have with our pilots,” Peter Fitzpatrick said. “We expect the upcoming negotiations to be conducted in this same spirit.”

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John Gradek, who teaches aviation leadership at McGill University, said Air Canada’s pilots will benefit from the might and experience of the bigger union, and gain from the added expertise at the bargaining table.

“When ALPA showed up as an alternative, there was a groundswell of supporters saying, ‘We haven’t been well served by ACPA,’ ” Mr. Gradek said.

Ms. Hudy, a Boeing 777 and 737 pilot who joined Air Canada in 2018, said the pilots voted 84 per cent to merge with ALPA because they saw the benefits of being in the world’s largest pilots’ union. “They understand there is strength in unity,” she said.

The Air Canada talks come as the aviation sector is trying to regain its footing as travel ramps up since pandemic travel restrictions lifted. COVID-19 grounded much of the world’s commercial aircraft and spurred money-losing airlines to lay off pilots, flight attendants and other staff.

Many left the industry or retired, leaving a shallow labour pool for the aviation industry.

“The pipeline of pilots is unable to sustain the demand the airline industry is placing on our highly skilled profession,” Ms. Hudy said. “At a minimum, it takes years to qualify to become a pilot at Air Canada, and the flow of pilots into the industry cannot replace what Air Canada is currently in need of hiring.”

Geraint Harvey, a professor at Western University, said management holds the balance of power in all labour talks because employees are dependent on them for their jobs. The shortage of pilots and strong demand makes this dynamic slightly less imbalanced, he said, “but that imbalance still exists.”

That means, he said, the union faces a battle in its push for big wage gains despite the strong job market, travel demand and the small raises in the current contract.

“With a possible recession on the horizon, management are mindful that this demand may not be there for much longer,” Prof. Harvey said.

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