by Carlos DaCosta
Coffee breaks offer a few minutes to relax and converse with fellow workers about things on our minds. Enormous changes in the aviation industry in Canada and catastrophic global events over the last decade have altered the mood of the workplace.
This article appeared in AviNation, Fall 2008 (download PDF)
Many of us entered aviation and performed a job related to aircraft because we were thrilled with these flying machines. Whether it was watching them take off, flying them for a hobby, repairing them, or travelling around the world, we decided to work in this industry in order to stay close to this type of machine. Many mechanics enjoy the advanced technology used on aircraft; performing repairs keeps us up-to-date with new materials and technology.
In the ’70s at the beginning of my career, we had great coffee-break discussions about such things as the latest Snap-On Tools or the new hydraulic fluids that were friendlier to our eyes, to name a couple. Times have certainly changed. Since those early innocent days, Canada has suffered the serious effects of the SARS crisis, with some companies even facing CCAA protection or going bankrupt. Of course we will never forget the 9/11 events that reshaped the way we live, especially in aviation, where much of the fun and joy has disappeared as a result. Such events also changed the nature of our coffee-break discussions.
These days, mechanics worry about whether there will be an aviation industry left in Canada and whether the company they work for will be able to survive the latest round of high oil prices. Discussions about Safety Management Systems (SMS), the lack of strong whistleblower protection language, the global outsourcing of maintenance work, news stories about companies losing revenue because of reductions in flying, or the parking of older aircraft, now replace previous discussions held during coffee breaks. The new topics are very worrying because they could not only spell the end to our jobs but also have the potential to bankrupt employers and devastate the industry in Canada.
Deregulation of Air Travel
Canada entered the 1980s with a regulated three-level airline structure. In May 1984, the Transport Minister directed the Canadian Transportation Commission to stop its economic regulation (controlling routes, fares or aircraft type) of the air transport sector, effectively opening up the Canadian market to any Canadian-controlled carrier. Domestic deregulation was formalized in the National Transportation Act of 1987. A slowing economy had already affected the air transport market in the 1990s well before the September 11, 2001 event, and further cut both traffic and yields, particularly in U.S/Canada market. In the aftermath of deregulation, there were many airline start-ups and failures. Canada also saw many mergers and bankruptcies in the ’90s. None of us, and certainly none of the workers involved, will ever forget the merger between the two major airlines in Canada and the day the new Air Canada filed for bankruptcy protection.
For workers in the air transport sector, it remains an unsettled and unsettling time. Over the last two decades, a succession of airline failures has put many airline workers on the street. Throughout the sector, the threats of shutdowns, contracting out and spin-offs have created a climate of insecurity and fear among mechanics and students thinking about entering the aviation field.
International routes are allocated to Canadian carriers based on bilateral air service agreements, though there has been a gradual dismantling of this process. Code-sharing and international alliances have also served to “liberalize” the international market. The Canadian government is starting to discuss the 75% Canadian ownership requirement for Canadian airlines (facilitating “flag of con-venience” carriers), and is seeking “fifth freedom” and cabotage deals with the US.
All of this has affected the aviation sector not only in Canada but all over the world. Globalization has drastically altered our lives and working environments.
Concerns about SMS and Bill C-7
When the Canadian air transport sector was deregulated in the mid-1980s, we were assured that economic deregulation would never lead to the deregulation of safety. Since that time, Transport Canada’s regulatory role has been reduced. Mechanics believe that the government’s intention to download the regulation and monitoring of safety to the private sector is dangerous, and are concerned about the use of SMS both in Canada and in foreign repair stations. If effective monitoring by Transport Canada of SMS in Canada is going to be problematic, it is even more likely to be so at foreign work sites. (In the US, the FAA has admitted that it lacks the proper funding and as a result of this and public outcry, a new Bill called the SAFE AIR Act (S. 3090) has been introduced in order to greatly increase FAA oversight of foreign repair stations and outsourced maintenance.)
Bill C-7 as it is currently phrased threatens to undermine the existing whistleblower process, which affords protection to employees reporting unsafe work practices. If a carrier or service company has no responsibility beyond meeting the terms of its own SMS program, to whom can a concerned employee report errors and safety concerns? Reporting an incident only through the SMS process without the protection of anonymity is a concern to mechanics and hampers the achievement of higher safety levels in aviation. In some situations a mechanic could face reprisals, possibly harming his/her career, for reporting an incident.
To increase the level of safety in aviation we need a system in which there are no repercussions for anonymously reporting individuals, thus allowing the identification of unsafe practices, and the investigation and correction of potentially dangerous situations by an outside party.
Outsourcing of Maintenance Work
According to a recent US government audit, almost 70% of heavy maintenance on U.S. commercial planes is now done at foreign stations. Mechanics fear this trend will destroy the aviation industry in North America, making it harder to find good and exciting careers in aviation. They feel the industry and the Canadian government have let them down and that their future is bleak. This is an area that needs to be looked at by everyone in this country to ensure we do not lose this industry to other countries as we did with the manufacturing sector. A quick look at the devastation in the manufacturing sector should be good enough to jolt legislative decision makers to move quickly to protect this crucial industry. To date, however, the message appears to have been lost somewhere in the stratosphere.
Another impact of outsourcing work is the elimination of many apprenticeship programs for the skilled trades. In times of skilled-worker shortages, most companies are not able to hire the right people, and must resort to stealing workers from other companies or hiring workers from other countries. This perpetuates problems for our colleges, and students thinking of entering aviation. As well, it leaves smaller companies scrambling to find replacements, thus repeating the cycle and further damaging our social structure. If Canada’s aviation industry were to grow, we would not be able to cope because we do not now have the structure in place to create enough skilled technicians to support it.
High Oil Prices
At last count, 12 airlines around the globe have gone bankrupt as a result of high fuel prices. This is a common topic for coffee-break discussions these days as well, regardless of whether you wear coveralls or a suit. Everyone is very concerned about the high price of oil and its impact on our lives.
Where will it end? When we add this new issue to all the others, it becomes harder to predict where the aviation industry will end up and what permanent changes will be made.
Despite all of the above concerns, many IAMAW members still enjoy aviation and the careers they decided to follow. Aircraft maintenance comprises highly skilled occupations that can provide excellent job opportunities for future generations.
Is there the political will in Canada to take the lead and change the dark future the aviation industry is facing? Will Canadians have the foresight and the will to renew Canada’s status as a pioneer in aviation amidst all the external forces we are facing? Let’s hope so! Then we can go back to discussing tools again.
Author Carlos DaCosta is a retired aircraft mechanic. In his 32 years at Air Canada, he worked on DC-9, DC-8, B-747, B-767, and L-1011 Tri Star aircraft, as well as the Airbus A-340. He became involved in the Union and, in 2006 when he retired from Air Canada, he was hired by the IAMAW as Airline Coordinator responsible for Transportation in Canada. He addresses issues affecting the aviation industry and assists in developing positions in areas such as aviation security, and CARS. Carlos is a co-chair of the Canadian Aviation Maintenance Council’s Board of Directors. He also has a regular column called “Connexions,” posted on the IAMAW Canadian web site.
All photos for this article were taken at Field Aviation East Ltd. by the IAMAW.
The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAMAW) is the largest union in the air transport sector in Canada and North America, and has represented Canadian air transport workers for almost 70 years. The IAMAW represents about 50,000 members across Canada, of which about 16,000 come from the aviation sector, and about 7,000 are technicians working in the aircraft maintenance industry. The IAMAW represents technicians at Air Canada, Air Transat, Bearskin Lake Air Services, Bombardier, Innotech Aviation, Land Mark Aviation, MTU Maintenance Canada, and Piedmont Hawthorne Aviation, among others. It also represents workers who perform aviation support functions at companies such as Air Consol Aviation Services, Air Labrador, Allied Aviation, Consolidated Aviation Fueling, Irving Aviation, PLH Aviation Services, and Skycharter.
The IAMAW may be found on-line at www.iamaw.ca.