No Wonder There’s an Air Travel Crisis. Airlines Have Been Screwing Workers for Years.

Air travel is a Kafkaesque nightmare right now. To solve this crisis and avoid future issues, airlines and the government should listen to workers and finally give them what they deserve: better pay and working conditions.

Air Canada planes on the tarmac at Toronto Pearson International Airport, June 10, 2022. (Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

The chaos plaguing air travel in Canada and around the world was utterly predictable. As delays, canceled flights, pared-back routes, lost luggage, and poor communications upend the already miserable undertaking of flying, frustrated passengers are lashing out against workers, airlines, and governments. Two of the three deserve the opprobrium (hint: it’s not the workers).

Canada’s poor airline performance is not unique, but it’s a world leader in being terrible. In the spring of 2020, Air Canada temporarily laid off 16,500 staff in an effort to save hundreds of millions of dollars. Then the company took big bucks in federal support — over $500 million through the federal wage subsidy alone — and laid off an additional 1,400 workers in January of 2021. The layoffs were devastating for workers who, forced onto Employment Insurance, faced severe hardship during the pandemic. As the Canadian Union of Public Employees argued, “Allowing workers to retain their jobs on CEWS [the federal wage subsidy program] allows them to retain important benefits during a pandemic, and it also would allow them to continue to work periodically without penalty — neither of which are possible when workers are laid off and forced onto Employment Insurance.”

As travelers returned to pre-pandemic modes of transport — in spite of persistent coronavirus cases — frustrations with early-pandemic screening measures rose. Those measures were blamed for travel woes. The government suspended some of them. Things did not improve.

Writing in the Globe and Mail, economics professor Ambarish Chandra and former Air Canada chief operating officer Duncan Dee noted, “It is apparent that both airlines and governments underestimated the desire of travelers to resume normal travel, and neither one was prescient enough to hire more staff in anticipation.” The authors then go on to blame “tremendous delays caused by government service failures” for the problem. Dee has consistently warned that the travel delays may last until the fall, as the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority scrambles to hire and deploy more screening officers, and airports and airlines recruit and train new staff. The Toronto Star’s Rosa Saba notes that unions warn the same, though they assert that future delays will be the result of work actions in response to low pay and labor shortages.

In Europe, airport workers are fed up. In Paris, employees recently went on strike, protesting pay and working conditions. Workers in Germany and the United Kingdom have done the same. In Vancouver, a former airport screener spoke out over the same issues, noting she’s not alone in her frustration. “Think about it,” she told CTV News journalist Ben Miljure. “We are so exhausted. We are working so hard. We do not get enough support from our management. We do not get enough pay. Every screening officer is just tired.” No doubt. Frontline airport and airline workers are among those whose critical work has continued during the pandemic, with many having to work in close proximity to coworkers and the public throughout. These stories are common. It’s no wonder people are quitting the industry. Workers have been given a raw deal and now they’re demanding better — or leaving outright.

The government of Canada says it’s on the case, undertaking a hiring blitz and attempting to improve processes at airports. So far, these actions have amounted to too little, too late. Even if these strategies work — and there’s no guarantee they will — a long-term problem remains: workers are aging, unpaid, overworked, and treated poorly.

The pandemic didn’t create the Great Resignation, but it did give it a turbo boost. Professors Joseph Fuller and William Kerr argue that mass resignations are part of a trend that began before COVID-19 arrived. Retirement, relocation, reconsideration, reshuffling, and reluctance are driving the trend, argue Fuller and Kerr. Companies — and, indeed, entire industries — that fail to recognize the changing (or even basic) needs of workers are having a hard time recruiting and retaining staff. Of course they are. Pew Research has found that most workers who left their employment in 2021 cited three reasons as major or minor causes of their departure: low pay, no opportunities for advancement, and disrespected in the workplace. A significant number also cited childcare, flexibility, and poor benefits as reasons for quitting.

The current travel crisis was predictable and avoidable, though only if you assume that corporations and governments are willing to take care of workers and meet their needs. So far, evidence suggests they are not. Workers ought to use this moment to bring both to their knees and demand better pay, working conditions, and whatever it takes to make their employment as safe, well-compensated, and as rewarding as possible. The rest of us ought to support them.

Airlines and governments, for their part, have an opportunity to develop a generation of stable air travel by meeting worker needs. Governments have a special responsibility here: they regulate air travel and bail out airlines. They are also accountable to us. They should ensure airports and airlines, critical elements of our national infrastructure, respect those who use them. If they don’t, they will thoroughly deserve the anger, resentment, and backlash from travelers who experience hell while just trying to move about and live their lives.

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David Moscrop is a writer and political commentator. He hosts the podcast Open to Debate and is the author of Too Dumb For Democracy? Why We Make Bad Political Decisions and How We Can Make Better Ones.

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