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Union challenges Air Canada’s move to fewer flight attendants

The exemption, granted by Transport Canada, allows Air Canada to have one flight attendant for every 50 passengers, instead of every 40 passengers.

AARON HARRIS/REUTERS

Warning of a threat to passenger safety, the union representing flight attendants at Air Canada is launching a court challenge of an exemption from federal rules that allows the airline to reduce the number of flight attendants on its aircraft.

The exemption, granted by Transport Canada, allows Air Canada to have one flight attendant for every 50 passenger seats, instead of every 40 passenger seats. Air Canada's discount competitor WestJet Airlines Ltd. and other airlines have also been granted similar exemptions for certain aircraft. WestJet has been flying with the new ratio since October 2013. The airlines and Transport Canada say the practice aligns with international rules, which allow U.S. and European-based carriers to fly in and out of Canada with one attendant for every 50 passengers.

But the Canadian Union of Public Employees, with represents more than 7,000 Air Canada flight attendants, is asking the Federal Court of Canada to review Transport Canada's decision to grant Air Canada the exemption. The union says the move is "a threat to passenger safety and security" and was made without adhering to the criteria for such exemptions laid out in the Aeronautics Act.

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"In an emergency situation, like an evacuation, fire, cabin decompression, a disruptive passenger or a terrorist attack, flight attendants are the first line of defence," Michel Cournoyer, president of CUPE's airline division said in a media release, arguing that fewer flight attendants increases risks to passengers.

CUPE previously launched a similar challenge against a move by Sunwing, where the union also represents flight attendants, and has been fighting the idea of reducing the ratio ever since the 1990s. But it has recently been revived by advocates for the industry.

"Bending to airline industry pressures to reduce the number of flight attendants for the sake of increasing profits is inexcusable," Mr. Cournoyer said.

In May, Transport Canada officials consulted industry stakeholders about new proposed rule changes that would allow airlines to choose between the current ratio of one flight attendant for every 40 passenger seats, which dates back 1968, or the new ratio of one attendant for every 50 passenger seats. Both ratios would come with a set of additional requirements dictating a minimum staffing level based on, among other factors, the aircraft in question.

Peter Fitzpatrick, a spokesman for Air Canada, said in an e-mail that the exemption does not jeopardize anyone's safety.

"Air Canada is satisfied that having Canada move to the internationally accepted 1:50 standard is absolutely safe," Mr. Fitzpatrick said. "We would never have sought the exemption if this was not the case."

He said the airline expects the courts to agree that the standard is safe for passengers. The change, he said, which applies to Air Canada's smaller, narrow-body fleet of aircraft, "levels the playing field in the industry, given other Canadian carriers are already being allowed to operate with this crew-to-passenger ratio and have been since last year."

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About the Author
Toronto City Hall Reporter

Jeff Gray is The Globe and Mail’s Toronto City Hall reporter. He has worked at The Globe since 1998. From 2010 to 2016, he was the law reporter in Report on Business, covering Bay Street law firms and white-collar crime. He won an honourable mention at the National Magazine Awards for investigative journalism in 2010. More

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