Air Canada bill could free airline from maintenance centre restrictions

The federal government has tabled a bill that will loosen restrictions on where Air Canada performs maintenance on its airplanes.

Federal transport minister tables bill to 'modernize' airlines operations

Air Canada welcomed the bill that will allow it greater flexibility in terms of where it performs maintenance on its planes. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

Air Canada could soon face fewer restrictions on where it performs the maintenance of its airplanes.

The federal government tabled a bill on Thursday that seeks to retroactively amend the legislation that governs the airline. It will likely protect Air Canada from lawsuits based on claims it has violated its original articles of incorporation. 

New Democrat Leader Thomas Mulcair described the bill as "Orwellian," and an aerospace workers union in Quebec expressed fears it would prevent unemployed members from reclaiming their jobs.  

Fewer restrictions

When Air Canada was privatized in 1988, federal legislation was passed that required the company "maintain operational and overhaul centres in the City of Winnipeg, the Montreal Urban Community and the City of Mississauga."

In the bill tabled Thursday, Air Canada will be allowed to located its maintenance centres anywhere in Quebec, Ontario and Manitoba. It will also be free to dictate how many people these centres will employ and what work they do. 

"We're recognizing that in today's competitive world, Air Canada — which competes not only in Canada but also internationally — should not have certain restrictions imposed upon it which make it more difficult for it to be competitive," Transport Minister Marc Garneau told reporters after tabling the bill. 

He indicated that while the bill requires the airline to keep maintenance operations in the three provinces, it allows Air Canada to open centres in other provinces and countries as well.

Federal Transport Minister Marc Garneau tabled the bill to loosen restrictions on Air Canada's operations on Thursday morning. (CBC)

Air Canada welcomes bill  

The airline has long been seeking amendments to its governing rules, and welcomed the bill.  

"It is indeed time that the Air Canada Public Participation Act... be modernized to recognize the reality that Air Canada is a private sector company," the company said in a statement.  

"No other airline in Canada is subject to restrictions such as those imposed on Air Canada," it added.

Air Canada had, until recently, been facing lawsuits from Quebec and Manitoba following the closure of service centres in those provinces. 

In the Quebec case, it failed to reopen a factory that went bankrupt in 2012, putting 2,000 skilled workers out of work. 

The Quebec government initially joined the union — International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers — in taking Air Canada to court. The Quebec Court of Appeal upheld a lower court decision that found the airline violated the 1988 law by refusing to reopen the Montreal maintenance centre. 

But Quebec shelved its case when Air Canada agreed to buy 75 Bombardier C-Series jets and service them in the province. 

Manitoba dropped its case against Air Canada when the airline agreed to create 150 maintenance jobs in the province.

NDP, union angered by bill 

By amending the legislation retroactively, the bill would shield Air Canada from similar lawsuits.

"Instead of enforcing this legislation, the government is retroactively changing the law to let the scofflaw Air Canada off the hook," Mulcair said during Question Period. 

A spokesperson for the aerospace workers union also expressed dismay that the government decided to alter, instead of uphold, the law.

"There are consequences on jobs and you know what? That's what they are elected for," said David Chartrand.

"They're elected to look out."

with files from Jay Turnbull