From verbal abuse to physical threats and police calls, front-line workers in the airline industry are finding themselves on the receiving end of passenger frustrations over flight delays and lost baggage.
“I’ve had customers poke me in the chest and say, ‘You’re not going to get me off of this flight,”‘ said Cheryl Robinson, an Air Canada customer service agent at the Halifax airport.
“I’ve seen my colleagues in tears, walking away because they just can’t deal with another person yelling at them today.”
“It shakes you,” said Robinson, who’s worked at the airport for more than 24 years. “This is probably the worst I’ve ever seen.”
The frayed nerves and exploding tempers are the outcome of an ongoing struggle by airports and carriers to cope with the massive travel rebound this summer.
It also comes as the union representing more than 700 WestJet employees at airports in Calgary and Vancouver says they have voted to support a strike if they cannot reach a new contract with the airline.
Toronto Pearson International Airport and Air Canada have topped global lists for share of flights delayed over the past month, frequently surpassing 50 per cent and fanning travellers’ ire.
“We can all understand why they’re angry and frustrated. Your flight gets cancelled and they tell you to call and you wait on hold for six hours — and I’m not exaggerating,” said Leslie Dias, director of airlines at Unifor, which represents 16,000 air transport workers, including 5,600 customer service and sales agents at Air Canada.
“To some extent, our people are broken,” she said from Calgary, where she is part of the negotiations with WestJet over a deal for the hundreds of baggage and customer service agents.
“They’re upset, they’re often close to tears, they’re exhausted. At all airlines they’re being asked to work as many hours as they can possibly manage to work. And they feel helpless.”
Dias added that police officers are being called to airport gates daily because of verbal harassment from travellers.
The fallout from the “sinkhole of a mess” deters new recruits and drags down retention rates, she said.
Dias is calling on management for a stronger security presence as well as higher wages to attract more workers, which would speed up passenger processing and make employees feel safer, she said.
The workers in Calgary and Vancouver bargaining for their first collective agreement with WestJet start at $15.55 an hour, topping out at $23.87 an hour after seven years, she said.
On Wednesday, those employees voted 98 per cent in support of a strike if they cannot reach an agreement with the airline, and could walk off the job as early as July 27, Unifor said.
“The pay scale has not been increased for more than five years, making WestJet’s wages among the lowest in the Canadian aviation industry and no match for soaring inflation,” Unifor spokesman Scott Doherty said in a statement.
The union also highlighted a “pressure-cooker atmosphere,” stating that workers have endured verbal abuse and physical threats from travellers whose flights were delayed or cancelled by the carrier.
WestJet executive vice-president Angela Avery said the strike vote is a “common step” in the negotiation process and was “not unexpected.”
“We remain focused on successfully negotiating an agreement that provides value to our airport employees,” she said in a statement.
“As the airline rebuilds, the majority of its airports employees have been with the company for less than one year, and the vast majority of more tenured airport employees have received increases through the existing pay step structure, in addition to a Canadian industry leading variable compensation.”
Before taking any strike action, Unifor must serve WestJet with 72 hours’ notice.
At Air Canada, the payroll is at 93 per cent of 2019 levels, while its summer flight schedule is below 80 per cent of pre-pandemic volumes.
“We continue to recruit for certain jobs and have and continue to refine elements of our compensation packages to remain competitive in the current environment,” the company said in an email.
“Employees are professionals and they make every effort to manage challenging situations effectively in their respective environments. The overwhelming majority of passengers are respectful. That said, Air Canada has a zero-tolerance approach toward any kind of aggression in our business, especially towards our employees.”
Flight attendants and customs officers face their own passenger challenges as well.
“It’s like a nine-to-five job that’s now turned into a seven-day-a-week job with no fixed hours,” said Wesley Lesosky, who heads the Canadian Union for Public Employees’ airline division, which represents about 15,500 workers.
“If you have kids, if you have a family, a partner, a dog, cats … everything’s kind of up in the air.”
Frustration from long security queues, missed connecting flights, misplaced luggage and hours on tarmacs has pushed emotions to a “boiling point … resulting in increased reports of harassment and abuse — physical and verbal,” said Crystal Hill, president of CUPE 4070, which represents some 4,000 WestJet flight attendants.
“This is very scary when you’re 40,000 feet above ground.”
Border security agents also face exasperation from passengers, at least 30 per cent of whom show up at land and air checkpoints without having completed their ArriveCan app, said Mark Weber, president of the Customs and Immigration Union.
“We’re seeing an uptick in verbal abuse. In many cases they’re waiting in line two, three hours to get to us. We completely get why they’re frustrated,” he said.
The increase in automated kiosks to process international arrivals at some airports has not made up for staff cuts that helped reduce customs agents at Pearson airport to the current 300 from 600 in 2017, he added.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 20, 2022.