When Sunwing pilot Derek Butcher recovers from COVID-19, which he believes he picked up on the job, he won’t be returning to work.
That’s because Sunwing is laying off all its 470 pilots on April 8, according to the pilots’ union, Unifor. Sunwing’s 1,063 flight attendants will also be laid off, effective April 1, said their employees’ union, CUPE.
The layoffs come after Sunwing suspended its flight operations on Monday due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s a very upsetting time,” said Derek Butcher from his home in Markham, Ont., where he’s currently in self-isolation after getting his diagnosis on March 17.
Butcher, 38, said he’s recovering well from his illness, but isn’t looking forward to being unemployed and living on employment insurance.
“There’s a lot of stress among [Sunwing pilots] right now, about being laid off and being out of work for potentially an extended period of time.”
Large decline in travel
Butcher and his colleagues join the thousands of airline employees at Air Canada, WestJet and Air Transat who also face layoffs, as the industry grinds to a near-halt due to a massive decline in travel during the pandemic.
Butcher, who has worked for Sunwing for eight years, believes he picked up the coronavirus sometime in early March while piloting flights to the Caribbean and Mexico.
Even though he spent most of his working hours in the cockpit, he had direct contact with flight attendants, travelled through crowded airports and stayed in a large hotel in Mexico.
“[I] cleaned all the surfaces in the flight deck, did everything I thought I could do to protect myself, but somehow I still along the way got sick,” said Butcher.
He believes other flight crew employees working on the front lines will contract the virus, if they haven’t already.
This week, Air Transat confirmed that two flight attendants and a pilot have tested positive for COVID-19. The airline hasn’t been able to identify how they were infected.
Air Transat also said that, currently, 150 of its flight attendants and 10 pilots are in quarantine because they were exposed to suspected cases.
Sunwing asks for help
Sunwing said it couldn’t comment on Butcher’s COVID-19 case for privacy reasons, but told CBC News that it followed proper public health protocols.
Regarding the pending layoffs, Sunwing said it had no choice but to suspend operations during the pandemic.
“The circumstances we face are dire,” said Grossman, adding that Sunwing’s executive team has taken a temporary 50 per cent pay reduction.
She said that Sunwing is speaking daily with federal government officials about financial support so that the airline can remain viable and protect its employees’ jobs.
“These are exceptional circumstances where we are fighting for the survival of this vitally important industry,” said Grossman.
Air Canada has also asked for government help. “The crisis facing our industry is worsening as countries around the world adopt increasingly severe measures, national lockdowns and travel restrictions,” the airline said in a statement on its website.
Meanwhile, some passengers whose flights were cancelled claim the airlines are withholding their money. Sunwing, Air Canada and WestJet have faced criticism after the airlines recently switched their policies to offer travel credits, instead of refunds, for cancelled flights.
The Canadian Transportation Agency said airlines are not required to offer refunds for flights cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Unifor has also lobbied for government aid, and says that any bailouts must include financial relief for laid-off airline workers.
“Otherwise, you’re just bailing out companies, and are they going to take care of us?” said Barret Armann, a Sunwing pilot and president of the Unifor local representing the airline’s pilots.
Armann said he’d like to see financial assistance for airline workers who can’t afford to maintain their employee medical benefits while they’re out of work.
Laid-off Sunwing employees, he said, will only be able to continue their benefits if they pay for the full coverage themselves — about $400 a month.
“It’s a quarter of your unemployment insurance, when [laid-off employees] still have their mortgages to pay and still have to put food on the table,” Armann said.
On Wednesday, the federal government passed an aid package bill worth $107 billion to help Canadians and businesses struggling during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The announcement didn’t include anything specific to the airline industry. Transport Minister Marc Garneau’s office told CBC News “any proposed relief measures will be announced by the government in due course.”
Finance Canada said that the government has implemented a program that is helping businesses — including airlines — access more than $10 billion in loans and other types of financial support.
Butcher said he yearns to learn more about any current and pending government aid to understand what the future holds for him and his fellow airline workers.
“The devil’s in the details with this now,” he said. “We’re all hoping our companies have the ability to get through this.”