Pilots experience turbulence during merging of seniority lists

By Lorna Harris
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 07/11/2002

Arbitrators can face an especially invidious task in deciding on an equitable outcome when blending seniority lists, especially after the merger of giant organizations. Air Canada’s purchase of Canadian Airlines is a recent example of this challenge. In a policy manual devoted to merger issues, one of the pilots’ unions notes that there may be “no consensus of what is fair and equitable” in seniority merger cases. As the arbitrator in the case noted, “I can safely attest to that.”

In fact, what may seem a workable solution at the time can be torpedoed by subsequent events. The arbitrator mentioned an “extraordinary letter of regret” another arbitrator wrote after his attempts to balance equities unexpectedly failed and left a group of pilots without prospects for the work he had tried to guarantee for them. In that situation, after CP Air purchased Eastern Provincial Airways, the arbitrator tried to balance length of service with several other factors “peculiar to the merger.” He discounted the full service of Eastern Provincial pilots but granted them a “fence” around their positions in Halifax. Unfortunately, “within months, the new, merged airline decided to close the base at Halifax, and the intended balance…was gone.”

The takeover of Canadian Airlines by Air Canada meant that several seniority lists had to be merged, the most contentious were the lists of pilots. In fact, as the arbitrator in the case involving the pilots’ associations observed, “the historic rivalry between Canada’s two mainline air carriers runs particularly deep on the pilot side.” The underlying reason is that seniority ranking governs the life of pilots. Seniority determines the type of aircraft they fly, the salary they earn and their “domicile” rights, through which they can bid on routes and exercise their rights for vacation and time-off.