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Summer travel surge has WestJet and Air Canada asking for volunteer help – CBC.ca

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A surge in summer travel across the country has forced Canada’s two biggest airlines to ask staff to help volunteer at airports to overcome staffing challenges — a move that is creating pushback from unions.

In an email to all employees, WestJet described how the rapid growth in passenger numbers is causing operational problems at several airports, including its flagship airport in Calgary.

The “growing pains of recovery requires all-hands-on-deck,” read the message, which included an open call for any staff members to sign up to volunteer to help guests requiring wheelchair assistance at the Calgary International Airport.

Meanwhile, Air Canada has needed extra personnel at Toronto’s Pearson airport since “airport partners are stretched beyond their capacity, which led to significant flight cancellations and missed connections,” read an internal memo.

In late August and early September, air passenger traffic reached its highest point since the pandemic began. The increase in business is critical to the aviation industry, which was devastated early on in the crisis as many countries restricted international travel.

The industry is not immune to the staffing challenges faced by many sectors as lockdowns started to lift; airlines continue to cope with changing government restrictions, while also following a variety of COVID-19 protocols at domestic and international airports.

In the U.S., American Airlines and Delta Air Lines also asked staff to volunteer at airports this summer.

At Toronto’s Pearson, the international arrival process can take up to three hours, as passengers are screened by Canada Border Services Agency and Public Health Agency of Canada agents, collect bags and possibly take a COVID-19 test.

“As the technology for sharing and displaying vaccine documents improves, passengers become more comfortable with the new process and vaccine-driven changes in border protections take effect, we hope to see further improvement in wait-time conditions in the terminals,” a Pearson spokesperson said in an email statement, which highlighted other steps to reduce delays.

Union objections

But several unions have advised their members to avoid volunteering for a variety of reasons.

CUPE, which represents flight attendants at WestJet, declined to comment. However, in a letter, it told members that “the company is imploring you to provide free, volunteer and zero-cost labour. THIS IS UNACCEPTABLE.”

The Air Line Pilots Association, which represents WestJet’s pilots, also declined to comment. But in a message to members, it highlighted how “if you are injured doing this work, you may not be covered by our disability insurer.”

Unifor, which represents customer service agents at both of Canada’s major airlines, said its members were upset about the call for volunteers and the union wasn’t happy that there wasn’t any advanced warning or conservation.

“Take a group of workers that is already very stressed by the kind of operation that’s going on, the quantity of passengers, the amount of extra processes that are in place because of COVID in order to travel — and then adding these pieces on is not helpful,” said Leslie Dias, Unifor’s director of airlines.

During the pandemic, WestJet decided to outsource the work of guest-service agents, who would help passengers that require wheelchairs, assist with check-in kiosks and co-ordinate lineups.

But the contractor is struggling to provide enough workers, said Dias, and that’s why there was a call for volunteers.

After flying more than 700 flights daily in 2019, WestJet flew as few as 30 some days during the pandemic. Currently, there are more than 400 flights each day.

“WestJet, as is the case across Canada and across many industries, faces continued issues due to labour hiring challenges as a result of COVID-19,” said spokesperson Morgan Bell in an emailed statement.

“As WestJet looks ahead to recovery, we continue to work toward actively recalling and hiring company-wide, with the current expectation we will reach 9,000 fully trained WestJetters by the end of the year, which is more than twice as many WestJetters as we had at our lowest point in the pandemic some five months ago,” she said.

Air Canada said it only asked salaried management to help volunteer at Pearson airport. 

Unifor said the airline was short of workers because the company didn’t have enough training capacity to accommodate recalled employees and couldn’t arrange restricted-area passes on time.

Thousands of airline workers lost their jobs, were furloughed or faced wage reductions last year, although the carriers are bringing back workers as travel activity increases.

Officials at Toronto’s Pearson airport say they are trying to reduce delays and wait times by bringing back the international-to-domestic connection process, which helps some arriving international passengers that are connecting onward in Canada to complete the customs process faster and go directly to their next flight. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)

Returning staff

At WestJet, its customer service agents have been recalled, according to Unifor. Many employees in other positions, though, remain out of work, including about 500 furloughed pilots.

Air Canada said it has been continually recalling employees since last spring, including more than 5,000 in July and August.

Asking for volunteers is an “unusual” occurrence in the industry, said Rick Erickson, an independent airline analyst based in Calgary. But he said it’s not surprising since cutting a workforce is much easier than building it back up.

Airlines have to retrain staff, secure valid certification and security passes, and find new hires as well.

Erickson said he even spotted WestJet CEO Ed Sims helping at the check-in counter in Calgary in recent weeks, as passenger activity was at its peak so far this year.

“This has been the most challenging time, honestly, in civil aviation history; we’ve never, ever seen anything approaching 90 per cent of your revenues drying up,” said Erickson, noting that airlines still have to watch their finances closely.

WestJet CEO Ed Sims is shown at the airline’s headquarters in Calgary. He’s been helping at the check-in counter at the Calgary airport in recent weeks. (Kyle Bakx/CBC)

Asking employees to volunteer isn’t illegal, but it does raise some questions, said Sarah Coderre, a labour lawyer with Bow River Law LLP in Calgary. 

“Whether or not it’s fair, and the sort of position it puts the employees in, if they choose not to volunteer, that would be concerning for me from a legal standpoint,” said Coderre.

Air Canada is currently operating at about 35 to 40 per cent of its 2019 flying capacity, but said one bright spot on the horizon is bookings for winter getaways toward the end of this year and the beginning of 2022.

“When looking to the sun leisure markets, we are very optimistic about our recovery,” a spokesperson said by email. “We are currently observing demand growth that is above 2019 levels.”

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Ethiopia conducts two air strikes on Tigray within hours, war escalates

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The  Ethiopian government carried out a second air strike within hours on the Tigray region on Wednesday, significantly escalating a campaign to weaken rebellious Tigrayan forces in an almost one-year-old war.

The second strike was in Agbe in the Temben region some 80 km (50 miles) west of the regional capital Mekelle, targeting a military training centre and heavy artillery depot, government spokesperson Legesse Tulu said.

That came after a morning air strike in Mekelle, the third this week. Tigrai Television said the attack targeted the centre of the city while the Addis Ababa government said it targeted buildings where Tigrayan forces were repairing armaments.

The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) has “been adept at hiding munitions and heavy artillery in places of worship and using ordinary Tigrayans as a human shield”, Legesse said.

Two witnesses and a humanitarian source in Mekelle told Reuters that the morning strike appeared to have targeted Mesfin Industrial Engineering PLC, a factory complex which the government believes supports the TPLF.

TPLF leader Debretsion Gebremichael, referring to government forces, said: “They are desperate on the war front. My interpretation is they are bombing us because they are losing on the ground and it’s their reprisal. The fact that they are bombing shows they don’t care about Tigrayan civilians.”

Speaking to Reuters by satellite phone from an undisclosed location, Gebremichael said the strike did not hit the engineering complex, rather another private company compound, but he had no further details.

Nine civilians, including a five-year-old child, were being treated at Ayder Referral Hospital for injuries sustained in the strike, according to TPLF-run Tigrai Television.

The blast shattered the windows of Mekelle General Hospital, about one kilometre away from Mesfin Industrial, and damaged nearby homes, said a doctor at the hospital. It had received five wounded people, he said.

“Four of them were factory employees and the fifth one is a lady whose lives near the factory. Her house was destroyed by the air strike,” the doctor said.

Tigrai Television posted photographs of what appeared to be plumes of billowing smoke. Reuters geolocated the images to Mekelle.

The two sides have been fighting for almost a year in a conflict that has killed thousands of people and displaced more than two million amid a power struggle between the TPLF, which controls the northern region, and the central government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in Addis Ababa.

The TPLF dominated the Horn of Africa country’s ruling party for decades before Abiy, who is not a Tigrayan, took office in 2018.

CONTROL OF THE SKIES

Mesfin Industrial Engineering is an equipment manufacturer and car and truck assembly plant that was part of EFFORT, a TPLF-owned conglomerate.

After war broke out last November, the government froze the company’s bank accounts, saying there was evidence that it was supporting the TPLF. The company could not be reached for comment. Most communications in Mekelle are down.

Mekelle was also hit by two air strikes on Monday https://www.reuters.com/world/africa/mekelle-capital-ethiopias-tigray-hit-by-air-strikes-regional-tv-2021-10-18. The TPLF accused the government of launching the attacks. A government official initially denied the accusation but state media later reported the air force had conducted a strike.

The attacks follow intensified fighting in two other northern regions where the military is trying to recover territory taken by the TPLF, which recaptured Mekelle and most of the rest of Tigray several months ago.

In July, the TPLF pushed into the two other regions, Amhara and Afar, and several hundred thousand more people fled their homes, according to the United Nations.

Last week, after the TPLF said the military had started an offensive in Amhara, the military said that the TPLF had “opened war on all fronts”, and that government forces were inflicting heavy casualties.

“The federal air strikes on Mekelle appear to be part of efforts to weaken Tigray’s armed resistance, which has recently made further gains in eastern Amhara region, with fighting ongoing in some areas,” said Will Davison, a senior analyst on Ethiopia at the International Crisis Group think-tank.

“Along with superior manpower, control of the skies is one of the few remaining areas of military advantage for the federal government,” Davison said.

 

(Reporting by Addis Ababa newsroom with additional reporting by George Sargent in London and Nairobi newsroom; writing by Maggie Fick; editing by Nick Macfie, Angus MacSwan and Mark Heinrich)

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How the COVID-19 microchip shortage has brought Canada's car industry to a halt — again – CBC.ca

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Even before the pandemic, 2020 was always going to be an uncertain year for Canada’s automotive industry.

The Big 3 automakers — General Motors, Ford and Chrysler (now known as Stellantis) — were set to negotiate multi-year work agreements with their main unions, after the previous agreements with their workers had expired.

Then COVID-19 hit, and everything changed. Buyers weren’t coming to showrooms for fear of getting sick, so sales slowed to a crawl. Factories shut down to keep workers safe.

By the time consumers felt safe enough to take their first tentative steps back into dealerships this year, they were confronted by a new problem: There were no cars to buy.

That’s because when things slowed down in 2020, car companies slashed their orders from their suppliers for the components that go into them. When demand came roaring back, those same suppliers could not ramp up fast enough, especially the makers of the cheap little semiconductor microchips that are in just about everything these days.

“Automakers in Canada initially thought that demand would be very slow recovery over the course of the pandemic, so they cut their chip orders,” said Rebekah Young, an economist with Scotiabank.

WATCH | How microchips worth $1 each can halt production of a $40,000 car: 

The microchip crisis explained

20 hours ago

Economist Rebekah Young with Scotiabank explains how the global shortage of microchips has led to major delays in the supply chain for the car industry 0:57

It’s not just the car companies, either. Makers of everything from iPhones, to gaming consoles and even refrigerators can’t find microchips right now, which is a global supply crunch for just about everything.

A typical car rolling off the line today likely contains dozens of semiconductor microchips that control everything from the headlights to the entertainment system to GPS navigation. 

They’re relatively inexpensive, adding a few dollars apiece to the cost of a typical car. But they’re also highly customized, which means it’s next to impossible to find alternatives on short notice. But without that custom-made $1 microchip, a car company can’t finish a car that might sell for $40,000 — and the industry is scrambling to get its hands on what’s available.

“Do you remember the toilet paper shortage in March and April of 2020?” automotive journalist Stephanie Wallcraft said in an interview. “That’s pretty much what we’re going through right now in terms of semiconductors.”

“Everybody’s trying to get semiconductors all at once and there’s just not the supply to get that inventory out,” she said.

Car companies aren’t necessarily at the front of the line, so they’re waiting their turn same as everyone else. That’s causing them to idle factories in Canada until they can get the components to start building again.

GM’s facility in Ingersoll has been down for most of the year, and Ford’s main Oakville plant has been idled at times, too. The Stellantis facility in Windsor was offline for two months up until May before it reopened at limited capacity.

As recently as last year Stellantis was floating the idea of expanding production there but this week the company waylaid staff with news that it would be closing one line entirely and laying off 1,800 workers.

WATCH | Stellantis workers in Windsor react to job loss news: 

Stellantis workers react to news of a shift cut

2 days ago

Frustration, fear for Stellantis workers thinking about their futures. 1:23 

In the labour deals they hammered out late last year, Canada’s big car makers made it clear that the future of the automotive industry in Canada will be in making electric vehicles, but most of those won’t be rolling off the lines until some time in 2024 at the earliest.

Until then, Canadian car plants don’t have a lot to do, and a big part of the problem is that the vehicles Canadian plants are set up to make aren’t the ones that are selling.

“What they’re doing is they’re allocating the minimum chips to their most profitable vehicles,” Unifor president Jerry Dias said in an interview with CBC News.

“If you’re looking at the industry in North America that would be predominantly pickup trucks and SUVs.”

Young, the economist, says Canada is on track to produce about 1.2 million vehicles this year. That would be the lowest annual total since 1982 — below the 1.4 million the country made in pandemic-stricken 2020, and well off the 2.2 million annual pace that the country had been cranking out for the decade leading up to 2019.

Chip makers, mostly in Asia had been ramping up production through the first part of 2021, before the delta variant put a chill on everything again. Malaysia makes about one seventh of the world’s semiconductors, and factories there have been idled for September and October. Vietnam is another major supplier, and they too are about three months behind because of COVID lockdowns.

For both car buyers and the people who make them, the good news is that the experts think things will get back to normal at some point.  But the bad news is it could take a while.

“Demand for vehicles is very strong this year, and that could have easily closed pre-pandemic gaps this year if there were enough vehicles to buy,” Young said.

But without enough chips to go around “we see that being pushed out not only to 2022, but in fact 2023.”

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At least 34 dead after floods in north India

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At least 34 people have died following days of heavy rains in the north Indian state of Uttarakhand, the state’s chief minister said, as rescuers continued work to free those stranded on Wednesday.

Aerial footage of the affected areas showed engorged rivers and villages partially submerged by floodwaters.

“There is huge loss due to the floods … the crops have been destroyed,” Pushkar Singh Dhami told Reuters partner ANI after surveying the damage late on Tuesday.

“The locals are facing a lot of problems, the roads are waterlogged, bridges have been washed away. So far 34 people have died and we are trying to normalise the situation as soon as possible.”

Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in a tweet he was “anguished” by the loss of life.

The Himalayan state of Uttarakhand is especially prone to flooding. More than 200 were feared killed in February after flash floods swept away a hydroelectric dam.

Unseasonally heavy rains across India have led to deadly floods in several areas of the country in recent days. Authorities in the southern state of Kerala said on Monday more than 20 people had died there following landslides. (This story corrects typographic error in the last paragraph)

 

(Reporting by Alasdair Pal; Editing by Jane Wardell)

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