Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.
Ladies and gentlemen of the committee, it is a pleasure for me to be with you to reply to the Commissioner of Official Languages' special report and, above all, to demonstrate to you that Air Canada is proudly serving its customers in both French and English.
As you already know, I am accompanied today by Arielle Meloul-Wechsler, Vice President, Human Resources; Louise-Hélène Sénécal, Assistant General Counsel, Law Branch; and David Rheault, Director, Government Affairs and Community Relations.
We are proud of our ability to serve our customers in the language of their choice. We devote a great deal of attention to our bilingualism because we feel that it is part of our ongoing commitment to excellent customer service. Basically, bilingualism is part of our company's culture and it is close to my heart personally. We support bilingualism by investing millions of dollars each year in language teaching and by constantly insisting on the importance of our employees providing bilingual services.
Last Tuesday, we were very disappointed to read the commissioner's special report, which we had not received in advance. We disagree with the commissioner on his conclusions and on the modified plan that he is proposing. The report fails to recognize what we have been doing for at least the last five years and what we have accomplished.
We have more than 7,000 bilingual employees, and Jazz, the regional company that provides us with services, has almost 900. We have developed and we maintain a rigorous evaluation system that allows us to monitor the language skills of new and existing employees.
We have implemented a staffing assignment program for crew members that specifically takes into account the requirements for bilingual services. Whatever the level of demand, bilingual crew members are assigned to every flight that Air Canada operates. Their number is determined by the type of aircraft. It is included in our collective agreements.
In a previous audit, the commissioner acknowledged that we had bilingual crew members assigned to all our flights. Every two years, we re-evaluate the employees to make sure that they are maintaining their language skills and we provide them with additional training if need be.
In all Canadian airports, we created and we maintain the network of airport language ambassadors, whose mandate is to improve bilingual services and to promote best practices therein.
We have established a French-language telephone support center for all our agents around the world.
We have implemented a recognition program specifically for employees who provide exemplary service in both French and English.
We use technology to provide systems for online purchasing, airport kiosks and mobile applications. These allow us to provide services that are uniform in both languages.
We provide tools and checklists in order to remind our employees about our bilingualism policy.
In 2015, we published a new linguistic action plan; it is available on our website.
With our thousands of bilingual employees from Victoria to St. John's, we venture to believe that Air Canada has done more to provide bilingual services than any other private sector company in Canada. In fact, 60% of the 9,500 cabin crew and airport staff that we have hired in the last 15 years are bilingual. I repeat: 60%. Since January, we have recruited 800 new cabin crew members, 500 of whom speak French, even though we hired them for bases in Vancouver, Calgary and Toronto. In fact, no bilingual candidate who met our requirements was turned down.
We attribute our success to the external relationships that we have undertaken in francophone communities, especially those outside Quebec. According to a recent study by KPMG, we are the leaders in this area and we provide more and better bilingual services than other airlines, airport administrations and private sector companies in Canada. The commissioner even recognized that in his 2012-2013 report.
In fact, 94% of the Air Canada customers surveyed by Ipsos Reid in 2016 said that they were either satisfied or very satisfied with our ability to serve them in the language of their choice. For a survey result, this is exceptional. It is also an improvement of three percentage points over last year's results in the same survey. In other words, our customers are very satisfied with our performance in providing bilingual services and recognize that, even though we are not yet perfect, we continue to improve.
These observations are corroborated by the statistics on complaints compiled by the Commissioner of Official Languages. By our estimates, while close to 42 million customers engaged in 210 million separate customer-employee transactions with us in 2015, only 52 complaints were submitted to the commissioner, meaning that the complaint rate is 0.000024% if we take into account the number of interactions. That’s less than three millionths of 1%.
These results aside, we are still fully committed to improving the delivery of services in both official languages, and we have established the following measures in our action plan: improve our employee communications to ensure that they are aware of our action plan and that it is widely distributed within the company; continue to inform all new employees of our language policy in their first week of orientation; develop a system to recognize employees with language skills and support their efforts in serving our customers in their preferred language; incorporate language obligations in the performance plan for managers with responsibilities pertaining to the delivery of bilingual services; place more bilingual employees at strategic service locations at airports; discuss linguistic matters during joint meetings with the unions; use more of our language qualifications signs and encourage our employees to wear the “J’apprends le français” pin, if appropriate; inform employees of the procedure to follow when no bilingual employees are available and provide them with specifics; work with various organizations in official language minority communities to facilitate hiring bilingual candidates; implement new auditing processes so that it is possible to track our performance in delivering services in both official languages.
I have been the CEO since April 1, 2009. The commissioner’s statistics indicate that, when it comes to complaints, our performance between 2009 and 2015 has improved by about 30%. Indeed, the actual number of complaints has remained stable since then, even though Air Canada now carries 10 million passengers more than in 2009. This observation contradicts the commissioner’s report and we should avoid accepting anecdotes as fact. Although it is interesting, historically, to talk about the last 45 years, let’s focus on the recent past. The facts show that in the last few years, we have followed the recommendations set out in previous reports and shown real and steady progress.
Although we would like to believe that one day there may be no complaints at all, we all know that this is not realistic, especially in the airline industry. Quite simply, there are too many factors that we have no control over, including weather conditions, security and safety issues, the daily realities of our network, work conflicts and often the difficulty in finding bilingual candidates.
As for the commissioner’s statement that Air Canada has a chronic problem in complying with its language obligations, that claim has been flatly rejected by the Federal Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court of Canada.
The commissioner also maintains that too little progress has taken place, but in his 2012-13 report, he writes that, in general, Air Canada’s performance has improved since 2008, adding that our performance was better than that of airport authorities.
If you are getting the impression that I am a little frustrated by this situation, it’s because I am. Our company is fully committed—and not just on paper—to providing its customers with bilingual service. We have a 94% satisfaction rate and a 0.000024% complaint rate.
In the past seven years, we have worked hard to change the culture within Air Canada. We have also won awards for customer service, as well as for diversity and employee engagement. Recent allegations in the media are an attack on our brand and on our employees.
I'd like now to refer to the proposal that was attached to the commissioner's special report, which we believe not only would improve the legislative regime in place but also expand the linguistic rights of all Canadian passengers. That is our proposal.
If bilingualism is, indeed, a core Canadian value, it should not be determined by the airline that Canadians decide to fly on, but instead be provided equally by all Canadian airlines.
Without this proposed level playing field, we operate in a dichotomy where today, for example, Porter Airlines has no statutory OLA duty to provide bilingual service to its customers, but if Air Canada were to purchase Porter tomorrow, Porter would suddenly be obliged to provide an OLA standard to those same customers. What policy reason could possibly justify that?
Indeed, the recent report issued by the Emerson panel on the Canada Transportation Act recommended that the obligations of all airlines be clarified with respect to official languages. The commissioner refers to a similar recommendation made by the Senate Standing Committee on Official Languages in 2012. This is logical, as having all airlines subject to the same obligation would help determine what the appropriate standard should, indeed, be for our industry.
It's important to mention here that Air Canada's share of the domestic market is now at around 50%, leaving nearly half of Canadian domestic passengers without an OLA standard of bilingualism.
Air Canada is not an agent of the crown, nor a monopoly, as it was during the Trans-Canada Air Lines days. Developing a new, industry-wide, legislative regime for bilingualism should take into account the realities in which other successful Canadian airlines, like WestJet, Porter, Air Transat, Sunwing, and others operate.
No doubt you'll all recognize that running an airline is a complex business. We carry millions of passengers on elaborate domestic, international, and transborder itineraries to more than 60 countries around the world using sophisticated equipment.
Every day we contend with different and unexpected challenges, such as weather and other forces of nature, health problems of our crew and staff, mechanical issues, scheduling issues at connecting carriers, security issues, unruly passengers, crew duty day limits, or even, sadly, socio-political events. These can disrupt our highly interdependent network and leave scheduled aircraft and crews out of place, requiring immediate substitutions, which sometimes makes it difficult to assign bilingual crews.
Private sector airlines cannot be regulated as if they were government agencies. While the Office of the Official Languages Commissioner may have expertise with government agencies, the issues in the business world are often different. We're constantly faced with these operational and safety issues where we simply cannot make compromises.
For example, we recently faced a situation where a small aircraft, operated by one of our regional carriers from Bathurst, New Brunswick, had its sole flight attendant suddenly fall ill. They had one flight attendant and she fell ill. The only replacement available on short notice was unilingual. We had two choices: cancel the flight and ruin the schedules of every passenger on board with a domino effect on their connecting flights, their business, and family obligations, or use a unilingual flight attendant.
There already exist instruments and organizations designed to safeguard the rights of airline passengers and to ensure that carriers meet the regulatory obligations. One, in particular, is the Canada Transportation Agency, which assesses all sorts of issues taking into account the reality of air travel. The CTA has the expertise to factor in the operational constraints of the airline business. It can incorporate safety, international regulations, and other industry specific considerations into its decisions.
I would like to conclude with a final observation, namely that the challenges Air Canada faces in regard to French services tend to reflect the nature of our country itself. The proportion of Canadians who are bilingual is 17%, and less than 10% outside Quebec. By comparison, close to 50% of our front-line employees are bilingual. Any entity seeking to recruit bilingual employees encounters the same issues we do, and the pool of qualified candidates becomes limited. Moreover, government statistics are showing that the percentage of bilingual citizens is decreasing overall.
There is a better way to promote the rights of francophone air travellers and to support the industry in delivering French services. More training and resources should be allocated to create a larger pool of available bilingual candidates. Governments at all levels should invest more in programs to promote bilingualism, particularly in non-French speaking regions of the country. This is what we think government can do, and, indeed, is its responsibility.
On the contrary, Air Canada is committed to action, as I mentioned previously, with targeted recruiting efforts, for example, by establishing comprehensive training programs, by ongoing awareness, and by making a concerted effort to reach out to francophone communities outside Quebec.
We also anticipate other measures, including establishing call centres to provide support for employees, distributing our own internal bilingual glossary, appointing language ambassadors, and much more.
I just would like to stress that these measures are not simply so that we can meet our obligations under the Official Languages Act. They are because Air Canada is an air carrier that has served Canadians for 80 years; the biculturalism on which our country is based is part of our DNA. Air Canada and its 28,000 employees take their responsibilities seriously, as each one of them conducts their activities.
The recent report was discouraging for our many bilingual employees, who are proud to serve our customers in both languages. Some of those employees are immigrants to Canada and are proud of the efforts they have made to learn both our official languages. They were insulted when they saw that the sincere and extraordinary efforts they have been making were unjustly ignored.
As the commissioner said here last week, we have a number of misunderstandings, but we agree on one thing: we have to evolve. So I am proposing a task force on the state of bilingualism in the air industry, made up of representatives from industry, including Air Canada, the other air carriers, the airport authorities, the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority, the new commissioner, the Canadian Transportation Agency, and officials from the Department of Transportation.
We are proud to be the most bilingual private sector company and air carrier in Canada and we are proud of our ability to serve our clients well, whichever official language they prefer. We will continue thus, and we are ready to do more to continue to be a leader in the provision of services in both official languages in the Canadian air transportation network.
Thank you, Mr. Chair and ladies and gentlemen of the committee.
We will be pleased to answer your questions.