By Allison Lampert

(Reuters) – The union for Sunwing Airlines pilots said it is urging Canada’s government to stop a plan by the Ontario-based leisure carrier to hire foreign pilots this winter to help cope with an expected holiday travel surge.

Airline industry use of foreign pilots as aviation rebounds from the COVID-19 pandemic is sensitive for unions in Canada and the United States. Those unions want greater efforts to hire pilots from the airlines’ home countries despite complaints of shortages.

“It’s a punch in the face,” Barret Armann, president of the union local that represents Sunwing pilots, said of the plan to hire non-Canadian pilots, adding that Labor Minister Seamus O’Regan “needs to step in and stop this.”

Sunwing will apply with the government to bring in 65 pilots this winter as temporary foreign workers due partly to a “staffing issue” in the summer, according to a Unifor union local memo to pilots citing a meeting last week with airline management.

Sunwing is in the midst of being acquired by Canada’s second-largest carrier WestJet Airlines, owned by private equity firm Onex Corp.

It was not clear whether Sunwing has started a formal process to hire foreign pilots. Sunwing did not reply to requests for comment.

The memo described a job ad from Czech carrier SmartWings that said “foreign pilots will indeed work (in Canada) under our contract but be paid more than 75% of our pilots.” The memo said Sunwing has available pilots in Canada.

SmartWings did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Holiday air travel is forecast to boom after a pandemic-induced slump the past two years. Canadian airlines are bracing for a busy Christmas season, with Canada expected to further ease COVID-19 travel restrictions.

Carriers in the United States and Canada cut thousands of flights this summer as a rebound in travel demand ran into labor shortages.

The use of pilots as temporary foreign workers is rare compared with other sectors. In the first half of 2022, Canadian employers were granted permission to fill 32 pilot positions with temporary foreign workers, according to government data. By comparison, 48,485 temporary farm worker permits were issued over the same period.

O’Regan met this month with Unifor and the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAMAW), which has a separate complaint about Sunwing giving work to foreigners. A spokeswoman for O’Regan said it was up to an employer to meet requirements to bring in temporary foreign workers.

Air Canada’s CEO has said pilots are not an issue for the country’s biggest airline.

(Reporting By Allison Lampert in Montreal; Editing by Will Dunham)