As a strike deadline approaches, Air Canada is coming out swinging by telling flight attendants to buck up and accept the unpredictable nature of their jobs.
"This departure from the routine is what makes the role attractive, and why we receive, on average, 25 applicants for every cabin crew member we hire," Susan Welscheid, Air Canada's senior vice-president of customer service, said in an internal letter to flight attendants.
Ms. Welscheid said that in choosing a career as a flight attendant, "some facts of life exist," including irregular work schedules, being called in on short notice, overnight shifts and delays due to unforeseen plane maintenance.
Air Canada's 6,800 flight attendants enjoy work rules that are "superior" to North American rivals, whether it be the number of days off each month or the system governing crew rest between route assignments, she wrote in the six-page letter.
Members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, who rejected a tentative agreement last month, could go on strike as early as next Wednesday.
Jeff Taylor, president of CUPE's Air Canada component, said in an interview that employees are disenchanted by a payment system that they argue fails to fully compensate them for "duty days," notably ones involving domestic overnight shifts with layovers of almost five hours at an airport.
"Because of scheduling, some flights arrive late at night and have to depart first thing in the morning. Some members take their sleeping bags and pillows and sleep in the airport terminal," he said Wednesday, noting the issue of crew rest is especially important for members who are at the bottom end of the seniority list.
While such shifts account for less than 2 per cent of the carrier's daily flight attendant schedules, Mr. Taylor said they have come to symbolize what employees view as "abusive" work rules that often leave them feeling overworked and underpaid on certain shifts.
The union is envisaging a system of "duty days minus four hours," which would boost wages for domestic shifts that incorporate stopovers. Certain shifts last 13 hours, which currently pay out 6.5 hours of wages instead of nine hours proposed by CUPE. Air Canada covers the cost of hotel rooms on stopovers of five hours or more, and has offered to shave it to four hours or more.
Other sticking points include wage increases over a five-year contract, management's proposal to launch a low-cost carrier and plans to place new hires on defined-contribution pensions.
Ms. Welscheid said Air Canada management is disillusioned by the lack of progress in labour talks. "The tentative agreement represented an incredible amount of hard work done in good faith on the part of all involved," she wrote. "Even more disappointing was the fact that the deal rejected was an excellent one for our cabin crew, for the union and for the company."
She produced a table to show that a cabin crew member, age 55 with 30 years of service, garners $51,500 in salary, plus $27,880 in various benefits and pension contributions to boost the total annual compensation to $79,380. Air Canada flight attendants are among the highest-paid crew members in the North American airline sector, she said.
While CUPE members could walk off the job at 12:01 a.m. next Wednesday, Ms. Welscheid said she is still holding out hope for a negotiated deal. "I am very mindful of the enormity of the task ahead for all of us and the need to finalize our labour agreement in the shortest possible time," she wrote. "We have come an incredible distance together as a team and now is the time to continue building on this momentum."
In an effort to counter criticisms, Ms. Welscheid disputed union characterizations that there has been a steady stream of concessions over the past decade. Employees received pay hikes of 1.75 per cent in 2006, 1.75 per cent in 2007 and 2 per cent in 2008, and under the rejected tentative agreement, workers would have gained 12.6 per cent compounded over a five-year pact, she said.
As well, her letter said full-time workers reaped $2,125 each in extra compensation in 2010, including a $500 cash bonus, $500 worth of Air Canada shares and $1,125 for meeting on-time performance targets and consumer-oriented goals.