Toronto

Load controllers among hundreds striking at Pearson, putting airline safety up in the air

Specialists are responsible for managing weight distribution of cargo so plane remains balanced

Amara McLaughlin - CBC News

July 31, 2017

Twenty of Swissport Canada's unionized load controllers, responsible for balancing airplanes during flight are on strike at Pearson airport. (Bloomberg News)

New concerns have risen about the hiatus of a group of specialized workers responsible for "balancing" airplanes during flight, three days after hundreds of unionized ground crew workers took to the picket lines at Toronto's Pearson International Airport to protest labour conditions.

The absence of a group of 20 unionized load controllers — specialists who are responsible for managing the weight distribution of cargo with the number of passengers aboard an aircraft during takeoff, the flight and landing — is raising questions about the safety of dozens of airline providers departing from Canada's busiest airport.

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"The aircraft has to be balanced so that it can take off," said Maria Davetas, who has been working as a load controller with Swissport Canada for 32 years.

Ground crew workers at Pearson have walked off the job after rejecting the latest offer from Swissport. Picket lines have been set up at Pearson's Terminal 3 and a cargo terminal near Swissport's administrative offices. (Christopher Katsarov/Canadian Press)

More than 700 unionized ground crew workers employed by Swissport Canada went on strike Thursday night after voting to reject a contract deal with their employer.

The members of Teamsters Local 419 handle baggage and cargo, clean cabins, tow planes and perform flight operations tasks for more than 30 airlines — including British Airways, Lufthansa, Air France, Sunwing, and Air Transat.

'It's kind of like you can think of trying to hold the ruler on your finger horizontally. If you put too much weight on one side it'll tip one way or another.' - Philippe Lavoie, aerospace expert

This includes the 20 specialized workers who are required by Swissport Canada, and the airline carriers they serve, to undergo stringent training and certification requirements in order to hold their jobs — a process that can take up to six months.

"They need to understand which airplanes they're working with and also they would have to have enough physics and mathematical background to be able to calculate where the load is when they are given particular cargos," said Philippe Lavoie, an associate professor at the University of Toronto's Institute for Aerospace Studies.

Davetas remembers attending these training programs, which Swissport Canada refused to disclose the details of when asked by CBC Toronto on Saturday.

'Supervisors are doing our functions'

While Davetas and other striking workers are walking the picket lines outside Pearson's Terminal 3, she is concerned about Swissport's contingency plan in the absence of specialized workers like her.

'From what I have heard, I think one supervisor worked over 24 hours in one day.' - Harjinder Badial

"Supervisors are doing our functions and I believe other management was brought over to some of the other flights," Davetas said after learning this from her bosses.

Swissport Canada's vice-president Pierre Payette confirmed in an email to CBC Toronto that "certified load controllers from management or specialists working on behalf of the airlines" are currently performing these duties.

The specifics on the number of certified specialists, who are covering these jobs, was not made clear.  

Teamsters Local 419 vice-president Harjinder Badial says two load control supervisors are managing the duties of 20 specialized workers while they strike. (Gary Asselstine/CBC)

Teamster Local 419 vice-president Harjinder Badial, however, told CBC Toronto two load controller supervisors have been covering work at the department.

"From what I have heard, I think one supervisor worked over 24 hours in one day. The day we originally went on strike," Badial said. "I'm not sure how they have been backfilling that work, but it is supervised, so I think it's just the two supervisors who are doing it."

Responsibilities of a load controller

According to Lavoie, a typical day for a weight and balance specialist consists of managing the loads of certain flights before takeoff.  

"They would need to know where the passengers are, how many are on a particular airplane and where the weight of each of the luggage packets is," he said.

Then, they need to distribute the luggage accordingly, he added, making sure the weight is balanced evenly throughout.

This is a delicate task, Lavoie explained.

An aircraft unloading and loading at Toronto's Pearson International Airport. (Swissport)

"It's kind of like you can think of trying to hold the ruler on your finger horizontally," he said. "If you put too much weight on one side it'll tip one way or another.

"There's a certain range where the airplane becomes stable or mutually stable so you don't need to fight for control of the airplane, so if you go level, it goes level basically."

Once this is complete, Davetas says the information about the aircraft's load is passed on to the pilots.

"The first paperwork that they look at is the maintenance and the loadsheet, which is what we produce," she explained.

Finally, the airplane is cleared for takeoff.

What happens if a mistake is made?

But what happens if a mistake is made during that process?

"If it's not done properly and we can discover it before it leaves than we might have to call it back to the gate," Davetas said. "But if it takes off, the captain may feel some difference in what we gave him to what he's actually feeling when they take off.

"That could be a report and god forbid something really serious happens."

"Most commercial airplanes, the airplane themselves is designed to be very forgiving, so very stable and easy to fly," Philippe Lavoie said.

In other cases, Lavoie says the aircraft can become "unstable" and "unflyable," adding this is uncommon for most commercial airplanes.

"Most commercial airplanes, the airplane themselves is designed to be very forgiving, so very stable and easy to fly," he said. "The main consideration for this is the efficiency of the flight … it's probably just going to cost more fuel.

"You'd have to make a really bad blunder to make the airplane unsafe."

700 workers on strike over labour dispute

Around 700 ground crew workers at Pearson airport walked off the job Thursday around 10 p.m. after learning that 95 per cent voted to reject an offer from Swissport Canada and strike. 

The overwhelming strike result came as little surprise as the union's bargaining team had appealed to its members to reject the proposed contract. The union has said it's struggled to find common ground on changes Swissport wants to make to scheduling.

The union said Swissport is attempting to impose a three-year wage freeze on the majority of the workers, require staff to work a minimum of 30 hours a week to qualify for full benefits and is seeking the right to change schedules with 96 hours' advance notice.

Picketers have no plans to delay travellers or any aircraft, Badial said Thursday.

Swissport, which has operated at Pearson for six decades, told CBC Toronto Saturday night it has "retained resources and are working with airline partners and the Greater Toronto Airports Authority to keep people moving."

Around 700 ground crew workers at Toronto's Pearson International Airport walked off the job Thursday night, forcing their employer Swissport Canada to come up with a contingency plan. (Gary Deol/Submitted)

The Greater Toronto Airports Authority, which runs Pearson, warned passengers the strike could affect some flights. 

"Labour disruptions at the airport may affect some flights," the GTAA said. "As always, please check your flight status."

Picket lines are expected to resume Sunday outside Pearson's Terminal 3, Badial said, adding he and his colleagues just want a fair deal so they can go back to work.

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