Canada is a big country. That is why, as a nation we are so heavily reliant on our airline industry with routes reaching every corner of the country. That is why there is so much at stake right now.
Think about it. Families today are spread across vast distances. Atlantic Canadians finding work in the oil patch. Western kids moving east for jobs in Toronto, Montreal or Ottawa. Older Canadians living out their dreams of retirement somewhere quieter.
Modern travel made it possible to do all that and still stay in touch with family. Before COVID-19 hit siblings separated by thousands of kilometres could remain close and grandparents could regularly visit their grandchildren. We could just hop on a plane – for some destinations, there seemed to be another flight every hour – and see our loved ones again.
The pandemic took that ease of travel away and showed us just how valuable it all was - and how precarious.
Without immediate help for the struggling airline industry, the disconnect brought on by lost flights and closed airline hubs could last for years – and in some places become permanent even as the rest of society begins to return to normal.
As I told the federal Standing Committee on Transport, Infrastructure and Communities this week, we can’t let that happen.
COVID-19 struck the airline industry early and hard, and has not let up.
Right now, 45% of Unifor’s members in the airline sector are either laid-off, furloughed or have had their jobs eliminated. At Air Canada 60% are out of work. At Porter and Sunwing, all of our members are furloughed or inactive.
Workers have also lost their health insurance, and more are given notice each day. Others are being forced to take pay cuts to avoid layoffs - all while wondering if they’ll even have a job to come back to.
It is a devastating blow for a sector that previously employed roughly 240,000 workers and contributed nearly $37 billion in Canada’s Gross Domestic Product. It's a vital part of Canada's trade in goods and services and a key linchpin in the tourism industry.
Airlines have drastically cut back on their routes, and even shuttered some locations – leaving entire communities with no flights at all, and diminishing hope that they will ever return.
Without government action now to save the industry, those fears are well-founded.
Any aid for the airline industry needs to put workers first. They have lost their work, or seen it severely cut back.
Pilots, for instance, must keep flying or risk losing their licenses. Any major restart of air travel, when it comes, could be hampered if workers – including pilots, air traffic controllers and mechanics - have not been able to keep up their hours to maintain their skills and qualifications.
Training and recertifying for pilots can take up to two years and is incredibly expensive, for instance.
Canada’s delayed response, then, could prove to be even more costly down the road. So far, this country has provided less than $2 billion. Among G7 countries, only Italy has provided less.
We can and must do better.
We can’t just count on vaccines to be a cure-all for the economy - or the airline industry in particular. The economic impact of COVID-19 will continue long after we get this virus under control.
Airlines continue to suffer financially, just as they did after the 2008-09 financial crisis. It took the industry and its workers a decade to recover from that hit, and some workers continue to suffer.
The difference this time is that unlike in 2008-09, many of the airlines' clients are itching to fly as soon as they can. There’s a pent-up yearning for travel, to see loved ones, or to just not have to take another staycation, and we will need a viable airline industry ready to meet that demand.
The federal government is considering even tougher travel restrictions as part of its pandemic response as the second wave resists all other efforts and new variants take hold. Any such move needs to be matched with help for those hurt by the measures – including those in the airline industry.
We need a robust conversation about the role rapid testing can play in making travel safer.
As a big country, we have come to rely on the airline industry to keep family and friends close, even as they live long distances apart – and once we’ve got this virus whipped, a lot of people are going to want to renew those connections.
First, however, we need to make sure the airlines survive to ensure they can do that.