Air Canada wins right to test flight attendant’s hair

Jun 17, 2024

A federal labour arbitrator has allowed Air Canada to complete a hair strand test of a flight attendant’s hair, referred to as CB, for cannabis use. According to the arbitration decision, the flight attendant was expelled from a residence housing 14 Air Canada employees due to his behaviour following a group meeting.

In the beginning of April, two of CB’s cabin crew members submitted reports due to his changes in behaviour, noting his possession of a bong, cannabis use, and comments regarding “hijacking a plane.” Subsequently, the reports were forwarded to a service director manager for Air Canada based in Vancouver, prompting the company’s request for a strand of CB’s hair for cannabis testing. 

On April 22, the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) filed a motion for Air Canada to cease and desist from taking hair strands for drug testing from CB, as well as prohibiting it from using information revealed by the test until CB was able to challenge the request.

Hair strand testing can detect substance use in the past three months, in contrast to saliva testing which determines very recent consumption, and urine testing which can detect cannabis use in the last seven days. Air Canada claimed the hair testing was necessary because more than two weeks had passed between the day CB was reported by his housemates and the day he was requested to undergo drug screening.

However, CUPE claimed it was given no notice that Air Canada planned to initiate hair strand testing for suspected substance abuse, arguing that this request violated the rules governing the principles of collective agreements.

Arbitrator William Kaplan said CUPE was right to protect the privacy interests of its members, but sided with Air Canada, stating that it had “an entirely legitimate safety interest to protect.”

“Indeed, in the face of those reports from the grievor’s colleagues and housemates, it would have been derelict of the company to ignore the information it had received,” Kaplan wrote in his decision, also noting that Air Canada prohibits cannabis use “at all times, even when not on duty or not in the workplace,” except when prescribed as medication. 

“The company had an entirely legitimate safety interest to protect as the grievor had been cleared to return to work; it had reasonable cause to request testing before he returned to active employment. Put another way, the company needed to ensure the grievor was not using prescribed substances before he resumed flight duties where he would be responsible for the safety of passengers and crew,” Kaplan said in his decision. “The hair strand test results will yield useful information that can now be shared in the usual way and subject to the usual safeguards.”