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An Air Canada jet takes off over the terminal at the Halifax airport on Monday, Sept. 12, 2011. (Andrew Vaughan/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
An Air Canada jet takes off over the terminal at the Halifax airport on Monday, Sept. 12, 2011. (Andrew Vaughan/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Air Canada flight attendants could strike Thursday after rejecting second deal Add to ...

Air Canada flight attendants will be in a strike position on Thursday after they turned down a tentative deal for the second time in three months.

The country’s largest airline, bracing for a walkout, said Sunday night that it has introduced a “flexible booking policy” to allow customers to change their reservations for free, subject to seats being available.

Air Canada hopes to operate part of its schedule in the event of a strike. The carrier would rely on managers to serve as replacement workers and also take advantage of partnerships with foreign carriers in the case of international flights.

More than 65 per cent of members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees who voted chose to reject a proposed contract that was signed on Sept. 20. In August, 88 per cent of Air Canada CUPE members who cast ballots spurned the earlier tentative pact.

“This rejection of this second tentative agreement shows how frustrated the membership is with the company, after years and years of concessions,” union leaders said in a memo Sunday night.

The 10-day ratification vote began Sept. 30 and ended Oct. 9. The voter turnout was 73.2 per cent of the airline’s 6,800 flight attendants.

The latest rejection came despite what union leaders called a breakthrough in improved work rules for “duty days” – a new system for calculating “paid time” to boost the payable hours during stopovers. For example, some shifts that factor in layovers last 13 hours and currently pay out 6.5 hours of wages. But the proposal would have increased it to nine hours of wages, effective Oct. 1, 2012, based on the formula dubbed “duty day minus four hours.”

CUPE negotiators caution that it will be hard for bargaining to resume. The federal government is poised to intervene with back-to-work legislation to ward off a strike that could start at 12:01 a.m. on Thursday.

“We ask the federal government, in the strongest possible terms, to respect our right to collective bargaining and not intervene unilaterally in this dispute,” Jeff Taylor, Air Canada CUPE component president, said in the memo.

Air Canada executive vice-president Duncan Dee said the carrier is holding out hope that a work stoppage can be avoided.

“We are perplexed and disappointed that two tentative agreements negotiated in good faith with and unanimously recommended by the democratically elected representatives of our flight attendants have failed to be ratified,” he said in a statement.

On social media, many flight attendants expressed concern about the slow implementation proposed for rules governing duty days and also slammed Air Canada’s plan to create a discount leisure airline that would introduce lower wage scales.

CUPE leaders said the union still maintains the right to represent the new hires, should management decide to launch the low-cost division, but cabin crew are worried about job security.

If Air Canada flight attendants do walk off the job, it will mark the second labour disruption to hit the country’s aviation industry in October.

Travellers encountered flight delays of up to four hours last Friday at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport, where security screeners staged a work-to-rule protest over plans for a new bidding process for shifts.

Flight schedules at Pearson gradually began returning to normal on Saturday afternoon after three days of work slowdowns by unionized staff employed by Garda World Security Corp.

The Canadian Air Transport Security Authority, which oversees passenger security checks, placed the responsibility on Garda staff for the chaos at Pearson. Garda has the contract to do screening for CATSA.

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