Other carriers happy to fill in while Air Canada is on strike

AIR CANADA'S pilots and flight attendants were sent home without pay this week, put out of work by a strike they didn't start. And smaller airlines are moving in quickly to pick off the most lucrative business routes in Canada, mainly the Montreal-to-Toronto run. The airline, which carries almost half the passengers in Canada, has been shut down by workers who want pensions indexed to inflation. Air Canada says it can't afford it; the union says it can't do without it. The result is deadlock.

Last week Air Canada, the government-owned airline, locked out its 8,500 ground workers after they started rotating strikes at major airports. This week, the airline started sending layoff notices to non-striking employees. The letter calls it ``off-duty status,'' but it means no pay. It affected 1,800 pilots and 2,200 flight attendants right away and meant layoffs for 3,500 airport ticket agents by the end of the week.

The union that started it all is the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers. They want a pension indexed to inflation. When the cost of living goes up, so do the pension payments of retired workers. They also want a 7.2 percent wage increase.

Air Canada says that is too much. The airline points to the competition. The union at Canadian Airlines International, the country's second-largest carrier, has the same union and signed a three-year agreement with its workers on Saturday with annual pay increases of 4, 4, and 5 percent.

The Air Canada union represents baggage handlers, cargo agents, mechanics, cleaners, and ramp attendants. Management staff could have filled in at some jobs, but there was a worry about safety and on time service.

``There was a long-term concern about safety,'' said Air Canada spokesman Brock Stewart. ``And we knew we couldn't provide regular service - on-time service. So last Friday we decided to shut down.''

Sources in Ottawa - including the minister of transport, John Crosbie, say the government has no plans to step in and end the strike. Mr. Crosbie said other carriers could pick up the slack.

``Thank you for flying City Express Flight 806,'' said the flight attendant aboard the deHavilland Dash 8 commuter aircraft. ``If the Air Canada strike had anything to do with choosing us, welcome aboard. But please think of us in the future.''

On-board publicity is just one way the smaller carriers are moving in quickly to fill the gap left by Air Canada, which on a regular business day has more than 30 flights each way between Montreal and Toronto. At least four other airlines are now trying to do the job.

Canadian Airlines International added nine flights a day on the busy Montreal-Toronto route.

Wardair, a charter carrier now breaking into the scheduled airline business, has jumped in as well. It moved wide-body jets to the Montreal-Toronto route as well as other routes across Canada, adding 7,000 seats a week to its service.

The airline got lucky. It took delivery of two A-310 Airbuses on Nov. 28 and started flying them - full - on Sunday. The airline says it stands to make an extra $4 million (Canadian) a week during the Air Canada strike.

Quebecair has added two daily flights each way between Montreal and Toronto.

Although the government has stepped aside for the moment, it will get increasing pressure from flying ``voters'' as the busy holiday season approaches. Air Canada usually carries 30,000 passengers a day on 475 flights.

The government is worried, though, about setting a precedent with an indexed pension. So far, the only people who have those are members of Parliament and federal civil servants.

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