Air Canada turns to labor board as pilots call in sick

TORONTO (Reuters) - Air Canada has asked the government’s labor relations board to intervene after an unusually large number of pilots called in sick on a busy spring-break weekend, contributing to numerous flight cancellations, Canada’s largest airline said on Sunday.

Air Canada aircraft are seen at Toronto Pearson International Airport, September 20, 2011. REUTERS/Mark Blinch

Spokesman Peter Fitzgerald said the airline experienced “numerous delays and cancellations” over the weekend.

“While weather, a disruption caused by a fire at our major hub in Toronto, and other factors affected our operation, some impact was the result of a higher-than usual pilot book-offs,” he said by email.

“While Air Canada supports the right of its employees to book off when they are unwell or otherwise unfit to work, we cannot condone such activities as part of industrial action to disrupt our operations and we have asked the CIRB (Canadian Industrial Relations Board) to intervene.”

The airline did not specify what action it was seeking from the board.‪

Air Canada has been in dispute with several of its unions, including its pilots, as it seeks to cut costs and change the way it operates.

Arguing an Air Canada work stoppage could damage the economy’s fragile recovery from recession, the government intervened last week to prevent both a lockout of the pilots by Air Canada and a planned strike by the airline’s machinists.

It first referred the two disputes to the CIRB and then passed back-to-work legislation that sends the disputes to binding arbitration.

The pilots said on Friday they planned to challenge the legislation through the courts.

Air Canada blamed some of Sunday’s delays on a utility fire at Toronto’s main airport, and the airport’s website showed cancellations affecting several airlines, Air Canada among them.

That followed delays to Air Canada flights on Saturday amid media reports a number of pilots had called in sick in Montreal, where Air Canada is based. Several pilots took to Twitter to say the weather was to blame, not the pilots.

The pilots’ union did not return messages asking for comment.

A strike or a lockout could have grounded Air Canada before Canada’s spring break holiday week, when many schools close and families seek vacations in the sun.

Fitzpatrick could not say how many flights had been canceled over the weekend, or how many passengers had been affected.

Reporting by Janet Guttsman; Editing by Peter Cooney