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Union goes to court over flight attendant ratio change

Nov. 28, 2013, Toronto - The union representing Sunwing Airlines flight attendants is mounting a legal challenge to the carrier’s plans to have fewer staff on board.


November 28, 2013
By The Toronto Star

The Canadian Union of
Public Employees filed a Federal Court application for judicial review
on Wednesday over Transport Canada’s decision to allow the airline to
operate with one flight attendant per 50 passenger seats instead of one
flight attendant per 40 passenger seats.

 

In its application,
CUPE argues that the exemption was granted, even though the
circumstances were neither exceptional or unique or urgent.

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It warns that staffing change will directly impact “the safety and security of the applicant’s members and of the public.”

 

CUPE national
president Paul Moist said Canadian airlines have been asking for the
change since 1999, but five transport ministers have consistently
rejected all such requests.

 

“At the root of this,
it is safety,” he said. “Our people work on airplanes, they are police
officers, they are firefighters and they are safety professionals.
Whatever comes up on aircraft has to be dealt with by a flight
attendant.”

 

On news of the court challenge, Sunwing issued a statement via email.

 

“We are satisfied with
the thorough review process undertaken by Transport Canada and feel
their decision to grant the exemption is appropriate,” said Sunwing
president Mark Williams.

 

“The 1:50 seat
standard allows our Canadian airline to compete with American and
European airlines already using this ratio, without impact to safety,”
he said.

 

Sunwing, which is
flying 32 aircraft this winter season, expects to operate with four
cabin crew instead of the current five on its Boeing 737 jets, beginning
in December.

 

On Oct. 18, Transport
Canada granted Sunwing’s request, which came on the heels of a similar
exemption given to WestJet Airlines last May, moving to a staffing ratio
that is used in other jurisdictions.

 

WestJet reduced its
staffing ratio on Oct. 1, which depending on the aircraft means three or
four flight attendants on board, and expects the change will bring in
$30 million savings on an annual basis.

 

Air Canada filed a
similar request in September for its narrow-body fleet, and its leisure
carrier Rouge has also asked for the change. Air Transat has also
recently applied for the same exemption.

 

Transport Canada has
also signalled that it intends to move ahead with the regulatory change,
so that Canadian airlines can adopt this ratio without seeking an
exemption, though no timeline has been set for the change.

 

“They have the right
to grant exemptions under certain circumstances, and once they grant
enough exemptions, a permanent regulatory change will just follow,”
Moist said. “They shouldn’t change the regulations by back-door
exemptions.”

 

Ashley Kelahear, a
spokeswoman for Transport Minister Lisa Raitt, said that the 1:50 ratio
was an international norm, recognized by the International Civil
Aviation Organization.

 

“The carriers from the
U.S. and Europe use this standard every day, including when they are in
Canadian air space,” Kelahear said in an email.

 

While the airlines
will say it is the international standard, Moist doesn’t buy the
argument. “It shouldn’t be a race to the bottom, and driven by airline
profitability,” he said.

 

CUPE opposes the ratio
change, but if the federal government wants to adopt new rules, “it
should stand up to parliamentary scrutiny in front of a committee, and
all evidence should be on the table,” Moist said.