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Jeff Binks, Sunwing Airlines, before he was laid off due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo: Jeff Binks.

Laid-off airline workers face uncertainty despite unfolding bailouts

Ex-airline staff look at career shifts.

By Pallavi Rao and Katarina Sabados , in Business , on April 13, 2021 Tags: , , , , , ,

Jeff Binks felt a sense of pride and accomplishment when he flew Canadians who were stranded abroad home, as border shutdowns began to sweep the globe in response to the COVID-19 pandemic last year.

“We said, Even if you don’t have a ticket, we’ll get you home,’ and we did. We brought them home.” 

Binks’ final flight for Sunwing was on Mar. 22, 2020. As Canada shut its borders, Sunwing Airlines was forced to let go 1,500 employees across the company, Binks included. 

Binks, now 38, spent the next eight months looking for a job in his hometown of Calgary.

He said employers were hesitant to hire him given his lack of transferable skills and the fear that he’d go back to flying if and when the airline industry rebounded. 

In November, a chance Facebook post got him hired at an e-commerce warehouse where he is paid $16 an hour to stack boxes — a far cry from his pilot’s salary of $180,000 a year. 

Like Binks, many other ex-airline employees have been patiently waiting to see if they’ll go back to work anytime soon considering how the pandemic has left the industry a shell of what it used to be, with international flights down 80 per cent since January 2020. 

The lack of certainty is weighing on its dismissed staff, especially those who lost their jobs in the early months of the pandemic. 

“We’ve had divorces, because of the stress,” says Binks, “and other airlines, they’ve had a suicide, from people who just haven’t been able to cope with all this pressure. And so it’s been a rough go.”

This strain has affected people from across the airline industry, whether they are pilots or flight attendants, like Saniya Sood.

Flight attendants cut in several rounds of layoffs

When Sood got hired as a flight attendant for Air Canada five years ago, it just felt right.

She knew the airline industry well — her dad worked as a travel agent for years — and she loved the idea of globetrotting to new places. 

Saniya Sood at the Great Wall of China when she visited China as a flight attendant for Air Canada. Photo: Saniya Sood

Then, in January 2020, the coronavirus hit. 

“You could notice on flights, it went from full flights to 20 people on a flight that has 400 seats,” said Sood. 

Soon rumours about furloughs began circulating. It was after a flight home from Taiwan in June 2020 that Sood got the email notifying her she was officially out of work.  

“I remember, we landed, the doors opened up and passengers got off. And then when people started looking at their phones, everyone’s face changed.” 

Now, after almost a year post-layoff, Sood is working a customer-service job with a major clothing brand.  She has plans to go back to school for a human resources certificate because she can’t afford to wait for airlines to start flying regularly again.   

“I do love the job. I definitely want to go back. I just, I don’t know where I’m going to be.”

Unions representing laid-off airline workers have been closely watching the negotiations for relief packages in Ottawa. On April 12, the government announced that a relief package deal was reached with Air Canada.

The conditions of the consumer-focused deal, which is a combination of loans and equity stakes, include refunds to customers, restoration of regional routes, and a pause on dividends and bonuses paid to shareholders and executives during the loan period. No explicit provisions about rehiring staff that were let go have been announced in the deal. 

Canadian airlines employ around 70,000 people, according to Statistics Canada. A payroll information report found that the sector has cut nearly 26,000 jobs between January 2020 and 2021. For those who found themselves unlucky enough to be on the chopping block, it feels like the government simply isn’t doing enough to help out. 

Laid-off cabin crew left behind in Air Canada deal, says union

The recently announced bailout, which comes amid negotiations between the government and other airlines, has not been well received by the union that represents the flight attendants. CUPE  issued a statement claiming the deal “betrays the government’s commitment to support airline workers” affected by the pandemic.

“We had a commitment from the Trudeau government that any relief money for the airline sector would flow directly to support workers, and that commitment is not reflected in this agreement,” said CUPE National President Mark Hancock.

“This deal is exactly what we feared a deal cooked up behind closed doors would look like,”  said Hancock. “It’s a year late, no transparency, and not nearly enough to support the thousands of flight attendants still reeling from the impacts of the pandemic.” 

Wesley Lesosky, president of the Air Canada component of CUPE, said in the same press release that, while the deal brings stability to the company and union members still working at Air Canada, it leaves dismissed staff empty-handed. 

“It’s tough to think this is what we waited 13 months for,” Lesosky said. “This announcement leaves over 7,500 of my members with no answers and no income supports.”

Louis-Philippe Deslauriers, 35, an ex-flight attendant at Air Canada, says the government has an opportunity to help unemployed airline staff directly by hiring those that have the skills to work in other industries. 

“In Quebec, they’re looking for teachers and there’s a huge pool of talented employees [ex-airline staff] that are out there just waiting for … for something.”

Louis-Philippe Deslauriers visiting New York City when he was on a layover while working for Air Canada. Photo: Louis-Philippe Deslauriers

Deslauriers tried his hand at nursing school but found it wasn’t the right fit. Now, he’s starting a call-centre job at a bank. Being in his 30s and wanting to put down roots is challenging, he says, when there’s career uncertainty. 

So it’s really like a 35-year-old having to be like, Okay, now what, how am I going to recycle myself?’” 

Even with a bailout, experts warn there’s a long road to recovery for the airline industry, and that only spells more uncertainty for its ex-employees who have found other work and made the shift into new careers. 

Sood says she is unsure if she’ll be back to flying any time soon even though she has a five-year callback in her contract — which means that, within five years, Air Canada has to hire her back according to seniority before hiring new workers. 

For Binks, who has only ever been a pilot, doing something else after spending 18 years in a career is a frightening prospect.

“I love my job, I love the industry, I want to continue to do this and so I’m going to try and continue to look for ways that I can go back to flying.”