Better working conditions equals better travel conditions

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A group of people holding red signs and red Unifor flags.

Editorial by Lana Payne, Unifor National President

Holiday travel often comes with dread and anxiety for many. Delays, lost baggage, packed airports. 

As a union representing aviation workers from baggage handlers to air traffic controllers, we and our members understand that these busy times expose and amplify many of the underlying problems in the sector. 

We reiterate our call for the federal government, airports and airlines to work together to tackle the root problems causing disarray in the aviation industry.

We all remember the travel season last year when people were stuck in long line-ups in airports, faced cancelled flights and left searching for lost luggage. Some ended up stranded for long periods of time. 

To soothe passenger anger, the federal government responded by increasing funding to improve security screening wait times and introducing changes to the Air Passenger Protection Regulations, also known as the Air Passenger Bill of Rights. The key selling features to the public included flight refund regulations, higher fines for failing to meet the regulations and funding to address the surging backlog of consumer complaints.

In response, some airports capped flights and others ended contracts with the worst-performing ground-handling companies. Employers also promised to improve the travel experience by pushing new technologies – such as automated baggage handling and customer service algorithms. This came at the expense of workers and with no evidence that the travel experience would improve. 

Neither airports nor airlines addressed inadequate working conditions in the industry. And if they can’t or won’t we need the federal government to step in.

One of the biggest problems in aviation is low-paid, precarious jobs that don’t meet the needs of workers. There is also a reliance on extreme overtime and understaffing instead of simply training enough workers to get the job done. 

Travel mayhem has continued because workers do not have the resources needed to deliver decent service and passengers continue to experience cancelled flights, automated re-booking, long waits for baggage, and even longer waits to speak to a customer service representative. 

None of these are because of the workers who often face abuse and harassment stemming from frustration from the travelling public. This travel season, we ask everyone to respect aviation workers struggling to do the best job possible in challenging circumstances.

The government’s passenger protection regulations are supposed to protect passengers from travel chaos by punishing airlines when they do not meet bare minimum service standards.

The fact is: It’s unlikely airlines and airports can even meet the passenger protection regulations without improving working conditions and increasing the aviation workforce.

What’s required is a close look at how the industry treats workers and values all stages of service, including check-in, baggage handling, customer service in the terminal and on the phone, onboard services, piloting, and traffic control.

In short, our working conditions are your travel conditions.

Thankfully, workers in the sector have a vision and solutions to propose. Unifor’s Air Transportation Workers’ Charter of Rights asserts nine rights the government, airports and airlines must ensure are met to improve the travel experience for both workers and passengers. 

They include fair pay and scheduling, protection from contracting out, safe and appropriate reporting mechanisms, a harassment-free workplace, a healthy and safe working environment, high quality on-the-job training, a reasonable workload and a say in technological change.

It wasn’t that long ago that jobs in the air transportation industry were well paid and family-sustaining. They delivered more regular schedules, a reasonable workload and fair pay. It’s past time to return to these conditions and help end the turmoil travelers and workers face. 

Heading into this busy travel season, travellers should expect airports and airlines to tout the new and improved systems they’ve put in place to alleviate travel chaos. The government will point to fines, refunds and data collection as the solutions to the country’s travel woes.

But we know that better air travel comes with good jobs and fair working conditions.