Citing what they call “unparalleled devastation” in the airline industry, the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM) has called for the re-nationalization of Air Canada. In an open letter to Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland and Transport Minister Marc Garneau, IAM Canadian General Vice-President Stan Pickthall wrote: “We were once all proud to call Air Canada our National airline, and it is now time for us to reconsider the 1988 decision to privatize this valuable resource and expose it to volatile market forces – this reconsideration is particularly important at this crucial time.”
This is absolutely the correct step forward, and Canada’s labour organizations need to be prepared to fight behind it. But it should also be expanded beyond just Air Canada. The COVID-19 pandemic has completely exposed the blind alley of private enterprise in air transport. It is time to put forward the call to expropriate the entire industry.
Airlines plummet as COVID-19 soars
The economic consequences of the pandemic have ravaged Canadian airlines. Air Canada has reported a $685 million loss for their most recent quarter. This is compared to a $636 million profit at the same time just last year. Back in May, the company announced that they would be laying off an estimated 20,000 of their 38,000 employees. This was one of the biggest layoffs in Canadian history. The last time Air Canada conducted a layoff of this scale was during the drop in flight demand in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. Air Canada has also had to retire 79 of its aircrafts, representing about 30 per cent of its total fleet. Calgary-based company WestJet has cut 100 routes since the lockdown, which includes 80 per cent of all its services in the Atlantic provinces. None of this is to even mention the tens of thousands of workers who are employed in industries that are directly reliant on air travel, such as tourism and hospitality.
As a result, airlines have been resorting to desperate measures to avoid footing the bill for this crisis. Air Canada has been trying to pressure the federal government to drop its mandatory 14-day quarantine period for those arriving in Canada from outside the country, despite there having been at least 26 international flights that have carried COVID-19 in the past months. Their reasoning is that quarantining is unnecessary so long as all passengers get tested after landing, but this is blatantly untrue. As a spokesperson for the Public Health Agency noted, travellers can still carry the virus even if they test negative.
Aside from jeopardizing public health, airlines have also turned to outright scamming their customers. Major airlines like Air Canada and Air Transat have been refusing to pay refunds for flights that were cancelled due to COVID-19. WestJet has only now caved in and promised to provide refunds as of Nov. 3. While the government has told people to settle their grievances with the Canadian Transportation Agency, they have failed to resolve a single complaint out of the 10,000 that have been filled since March! As a matter of fact, they admit that they’re still working their way through cases that were filed before the pandemic! This sort of sluggish bureaucracy all but guarantees that customers are going to remain ripped off.
No bailouts! Expropriate the bosses!
Canada’s airline industry is an absolutely essential service. With the country’s massive size and relatively sparse population, most of our major urban centres are separated by thousands of kilometres. For most Canadians, travelling out of province isn’t feasible by any other means but by air. This is all to say that the industry must be saved. The only question is how.
Anonymous government and industry sources recently told The Globe and Mail that the federal government is preparing a bailout package. Government officials have even said publicly that they haven’t ruled out taking a stake in major airlines as a condition of bailout. But even if the federal government does take partial ownership, this doesn’t provide any sort of real solution. The fundamental reason for this crisis is that air travel has been operated according to profit rather than according to need. The minute that the opportunity to turn a profit disappeared, the industry collapsed and CEOs had to go running to Trudeau to beg for a handout. It shouldn’t be up to tax paying workers to foot the bill for the shortcomings of private industry. Even if the government did provide a bailout, it is unlikely that it would be effective. American airlines are already asking for an extension to the $25-billion bailout they received from Congress just a few months ago. Any bailout now would be a band-aid on a sinking ship: a band-aid paid for by the working class.
COVID-19 has exposed the complete bankruptcy of capitalism. While the pandemic may have been the most immediate cause of the lack of demand that sparked the current economic crisis, it is only a reflection of a deeper issue: the profit motive. Basing the entire economy on the hunt for profit means that in extraordinary situations like these, we’re provided with no way forward. Industry crashes as demand crashes. The only solution is to fundamentally rearrange our economy away from profit. We need to put the economy under the democratic, planned control of the working class, starting with the airline industry and then expanding to all the largest banks and corporations. COVID-19 isn’t the primary problem, capitalism is. The only vaccination to this constant, nauseating cycle of capitalist economic crisis is a socialist planned economy.