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Michael Ennis is about to turn 60 in April, 2011, meaning he will be forced out of his pilot's job with Air Canada in May. (Jennifer Roberts for The Globe and Mail/Jennifer Roberts for The Globe and Mail)
Michael Ennis is about to turn 60 in April, 2011, meaning he will be forced out of his pilot's job with Air Canada in May. (Jennifer Roberts for The Globe and Mail/Jennifer Roberts for The Globe and Mail)

A pilot's quest to remain at the top Add to ...

He's No. 1. His name is Michael Ennis, and the Air Canada captain is at the very top of the seniority list of the airline's 3,039 pilots. That means he has one of the best jobs in Canadian aviation, choosing the destinations he wants to fly on the carrier's wide-body Boeing 777s.

The trouble is that he will turn 60 in April, and under the collective agreement between the airline and the Air Canada Pilots Association, he will be forced out of his job on May 1.

In this latest chapter in the long-running battle over the airline's controversial mandatory-retirement policy, Mr. Ennis filed a complaint Friday with the Canada Industrial Relations Board, arguing that the union is declining to represent him in his quest to stay No. 1 at Air Canada until he turns 65.

Seniority is crucial because it determines which pilots win better-paid assignments on larger planes, and sets priorities for vacation time.

Knowing that Air Canada's mandatory-retirement rule won't be changing any time soon, Mr. Ennis has landed a job with Istanbul-based Turkish Airlines. He will start May 2, one day after he is formally removed from Air Canada's pilot seniority list.

For Mr. Ennis, the assignment with Turkish Airlines will be a step down in pay and prestige, but he is adamant about working beyond 60. "My first choice is to stay with Air Canada," he said in an interview from his home in Oakville, Ont., before heading for a workout at a local gym. "I'm in good shape. Everybody says I don't look like I'm turning 60, for sure."

Mr. Ennis, who started at Air Canada shortly after his 21st birthday in 1972, loves his job. "I'm No. 1, so I go wherever I want," he said, listing some of the routes he flies - Hong Kong, Beijing, Tokyo, Santiago, Buenos Aires, Sao Paulo, London, Paris and Frankfurt.

Air Canada and Turkish Airlines are both members of the Star Alliance of global carriers, but it just won't be same with the new employer, he said.

"It's not right that I have to leave Canada," Mr. Ennis said. "The world has changed, and many other airlines have changed it to retiring at age 65, but not Air Canada."

Through Internet-based phone services such as Skype, he plans to stay in touch with his wife, Barbara, a former Air Canada flight attendant, and their son Ben, 27, and daughter Katie, 24.

Pilots with Mr. Ennis's experience earn $230,000 a year and qualify for a pension of $10,000 a month if they retire at age 60. At Turkish Airlines, it is estimated that he will earn $150,000 annually.

"My wife knows that I would be a wreck if I stopped working," said Mr. Ennis, who rose to the top of Air Canada's seniority rankings in February, 2010, and has been in the top 10 for the past four years.

But his wish to stay in the job is opposed by many of his colleagues. Capt. Cory Brown, 33, said extending the retirement age to 65 will penalize younger pilots.

"Seniority is your entire life because seniority affects everything. When these older pilots say they want to work past the age of 60, it's going to affect my lifestyle," said Mr. Brown, who flies the 93-seat Embraer jet for Air Canada, mostly on routes within North America.

The Ontario-based pilot, who earned $113,000 last year, said older pilots should view it as their duty to "pass the torch" to younger colleagues.

Union officials argue that an internal survey of Air Canada pilots last year showed that 82 per cent of the respondents favoured keeping the retirement age at 60 or younger.

A group called the Fly Past 60 Coalition, however, is backing Mr. Ennis in his fight against Air Canada and the union representing the airline's pilots. Raymond Hall, a lawyer and retired Air Canada pilot who heads the coalition, said there are more than 150 other retired pilots seeking to fly again.

Mr. Hall filed the complaint Friday to the Canada Industrial Relations Board on behalf of Mr. Ennis and two other pilots who will also soon turn 60, Brad Ellis and Andrew Clark, who allege that their union unfairly refused to initiate grievances. The union rejects the allegations and plans to respond.

The International Civil Aviation Organization allows a pilot aged 60 to 65 to be in the cockpit on overseas flights, as long as the other pilot is under 60.

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