The federal government is referring the labour dispute between Air Canada and its flight attendants to the Canada Industrial Relations Board, a move that will prevent the employees from going on strike Thursday, Labour Minister Lisa Raitt says.

"What it's meant to do is before there's a work stoppage, just to make sure that the work stoppage is not going to affect the health and safety of the public and that's what the CIRB will take a look at after hearing from the parties involved," Raitt said on CBC-TV's Power & Politics with Evan Solomon.

Raitt said the CIRB would have to consider what communities might be cut off from service to urban centres and what effect  that would have on Canadians' health and safety. Raitt said she didn't know how long it would take the CIRB to render a decision.

Air Canada issued a statement late Tuesday that said the airline's representatives would appear before the CIRB as required.

"Further details are not available at this point. It will remain business as usual at Air Canada and all flights will continue to operate as scheduled," the company said.

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On Monday, Raitt said the government would intervene with back-to-work legislation if Air Canada flight attendants went on strike, and she suggested it would change the Canada Labour Code if it finds it necessary.

The issues

Air Canada flight attendants have rejected two proposed tentative agreements since their contract expired March 31, 2011. The first was rejected in August by a vote of 88 per cent, and the second deal, reached Sept. 20, was rejected by 65 per cent of those who participated in a ratification vote held across the country from Sept. 30 to Oct. 9. Voter turnout was 78 per cent in the first round and 73 per cent in the second. Below are some of the issues that have been prominent in the negotiations.

Low-cost airline: Probably the biggest sticking point in the negotiations is Air Canada's plan to set up a low-cost carrier to service "leisure routes" to sun destinations like Mexico and the Caribbean in order to compete with the likes of Air Transat and WestJet. Flight attendants fear such a move would poach routes away from the main carrier, threaten their job security and drive wages down. According to the union, the top wage at the low-cost airline would be only three-quarters of what veteran Air Canada flight attendants make (which is somewhere between $46,400 and $51,500 according to figures quoted by union and management representatives). Air Canada reportedly plans to hire 1,400 flight attendants and 460 pilots for the discount carrier. In the second tentative agreement, the union withdrew clauses in which it had given its support in principle for the discount airline.

Wages: The second agreement includes wage hikes of 9.3 per cent over four years. The first agreement had proposed an increase of 12.6 per cent over five years. The starting salary for a flight attendant is $18,000 a year, which union members complain puts them below the poverty line.

Pensions: CUPE agreed to a blended pension model for new hires which will combine a defined benefit plan, which guarantees a set payout at retirement, and a defined contribution plan, in which the payout is variable and which is less costly for the employer.

Duty days: Management agreed to compensate flight attendants for a greater portion of overnight shifts on domestic flights that include airport layovers. It agreed to the union's proposed "duty days minus four hours" model of compensation, meaning attendants would receive nine hours of wages for a 13-hour duty period as opposed to the current 6.5 hours of wages for such a shift. The changes wouldn't take effect until October 2012, which some union members feel is too long of an implementation period.

Banked time: Management reportedly withdrew an offer included in the first agreement to allow flight attendants to bank time for vacation days.

Per diems: Air Canada withdrew its offer to reduce the minimum length of a stopover required in order to have hotel room costs covered. It currently pays hotel costs only for stopovers of five hours or more but in the first agreement had offered to reduce this to four hours.

Premiums: Management scrapped new rules that had been proposed in the first agreement that would have obliged it to pay premiums to junior flight attendants for some on-call shifts.

But how soon a possible strike could be ended by government back-to-work legislation would have depended on how fast Parliament could get recalled — it is currently on a break until Oct. 17 — and how long the NDP might filibuster.

Earlier on Tuesday, CUPE, the union representing the flight attendants, said it was willing to continue negotiations with the airline to stave off the strike.

"We are ready to respond quickly to the employer," Jeff Taylor, president of CUPE's branch for Air Canada flight attendants, said in a statement.

"While no formal talks have taken place yet, we are ready to return to the table and find a way to keep our members and the public flying with a fair collective agreement."

The flight attendants, who are represented by CUPE, served a 72-hour strike notice on the airline on Sunday after 65 per cent of the votes cast were against the latest tentative collective agreement.

It marked the second time in recent months that the flight attendants have turned down a tentative deal with the airline.

They voted 87.8 per cent against ratifying the previous agreement in August.

Two people who said they are junior flight attendants told CBC News that a petition is being circulated to remove union management.

"I don't think they get us. I don't think they get what we're fighting for," said one flight attendant.

While a strike by flight attendants would undoubtedly have a major impact on Air Canada's ability to operate, the airline has said it will maintain a partial schedule operated by its regional carriers in the event of a work stoppage.

The airline has not released details on what that partial schedule might include.

The airline said regular Air Canada Express service between the Toronto Island airport and Montreal's Trudeau airport, and flights operated by its Star Alliance partner airlines on international and U.S. transborder routes, would remain unaffected.

Passengers with tickets to fly over the next six days on a rolling window will be allowed to change their travel dates at no charge until Dec. 15, the airline said.

People weighed in via social media on the latest labour developments.

"You think you are WAY more important than you really are," Melanie Pope wrote of the flight attendants on Air Canada's Facebook page. 

"Take the deal and quit whining. I will never book another flight with Air Canada."

In response, Christopher Dempster wrote: "While I do not agree the strike is a wise move, I don't think it has anything to do with anyone thinking they are 'important.'"

Many other consumers posted on the page seeking information about flights and schedules in the event of a labour disruption.

On CBC.ca, community member "MattAbroad" wrote that his wife and two daughters, who are both under age four, have switched from a daytime flight to Vancouver on Thursday to an 11 p.m. flight on Wednesday night.

"Sorry, fellow travellers, 11 p.m. to 4 a.m. is not really when my girls shine, but we didn't plan it this way," the post says.

"I don't like being made a pawn in disputes between labour and management."

WestJet said Tuesday it would add more domestic and cross-border flights, based on available crews and aircraft, in the event of a strike at its competitor.

"October is a slower part of the travel season," said Cam Kenyon, WestJet's executive vice-president of operations.