Michael Pihach is an award-winning journalist with a keen interest in digital storytelling. In addition to PAX, Michael has also written for CBC Life, Ryerson University Magazine, IN Magazine, and DailyXtra.ca. Michael joins PAX after years of working at popular Canadian television shows, such as Steven and Chris, The Goods and The Marilyn Denis Show.
After a week of intense round-the-clock negotiations, The WestJet Group and the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) reached a last-minute tentative agreement early Friday morning (May 19), averting a strike ahead of the May long weekend.
WestJet had already cancelled more than 100 flights on Thursday (May 18) – about a third of its operations – as negotiations with its pilots' union dragged on and intensified throughout the day.
Both parties now await the ratification vote to be put forward to membership, according to an update that was sent to media at roughly 2.15 a.m. EST. (The deal, in real time, was reportedly reached at roughly 12:30 a.m. EST).
Had a deal not been reached, more than 1,800 pilots at WestJet and Swoop were poised to walked off the job at 5 a.m. EST., a move that also would have represented WestJet's first-ever work stoppage.
"The WestJet Group is pleased to have reached a tentative agreement that is industry-leading within Canada and recognizes the important contributions of our valued pilots by providing meaningful improvements to job security and scope, working conditions and wages," stated Alexis von Hoensbroech, WestJet Group’s CEO.
"We appreciate we were able to arrive at a deal, however, recognize the impact on our guests and we sincerely appreciate their patience during this time. We are pleased to now return our focus to providing friendly, reliable and affordable air service to Canadians for years to come.”
WestJet says it is “ramping up its operations as quickly and efficiently as possible.” However, it noted that the full resumption of operations will take time.
Guests remain encouraged to continue to check the status of their flights before heading to the airport.
"Congratulations to both parties and our federal mediators on a good deal made," federal Labour Minister Seamus O'Regan tweeted after the announcement was made. "Thanks to your hard work, goods will keep moving and thousands of people will keep their travel plans this May 24 weekend."
O'Regan was on the ground, helping in the negotiations, which concluded at the Toronto Westin Airport hotel.
With more than 4,000 flights scheduled over the next seven days, WestJet carries 28 per cent of Canada's domestic market, according to flight data firm Cirium.
Deal will “serve us really well"
The update marks a dramatic turn of events – yesterday, von Hoensbroech gave no indication that a deal was even close to being reached.
The talks remained at a “critical impasse” as WestJet began dismantling its flight schedule in anticipation of a strike and lockout.
Pilots representing both WestJet and discount carrier Swoop voted in favour of a strike mandate in April.
They have been seeking better job protections, benefits and wages to bring them in line with their U.S. counterparts.
The “U.S.” component seemed to be a key sticking point during the talks as demands for U.S.-like wages, in WestJet’s view, remained unreasonable.
Such terms would have “permanently" damaged the financial viability of the company’s future, WestJet said.
But speaking on the PIREP podcast early Friday morning, Capt. Bernard Lewall, chair of the WestJet ALPA Master Executive Council, said the Agreement in Principle that has been signed will “serve us really well.”
He said issues of scope and compensation have been addressed, noting that WestJet pilots now have a pension option.
“All our talking points have been about making WestJet a career airline...Part of that is having a pension for these new hires coming to WestJet,” Lewall said. (Existing pilots will also have access to a pension plan, he noted).
In terms of value, the union has managed to capture an additional $400 million dollars of “new money” for WestJet pilots over four years, said Captain Chris Tholl, also speaking on the podcast.
The contract will help solve many of WestJet’s pilot attraction and retention issues, Lewall stated in a press release issued by the ALPA.
The WestJet ALPA leaders also believe the agreement delivers on goals of better job security and more flexible schedules to allow for a better work/life balance that are consistent with collective agreements.
As for WestJet and Swoop, after grounding the bulk of their fleet yesterday, the operation is currently in “shambles," Capt. Lewall said on the podcast.
Yesterday's shutdown impacted dozens of routes within Canada, to the U.S. and to destinations overseas.
Most of the cancellations were out of Calgary or Toronto, and the impacted routes ranged from Las Vegas to London to Barcelona and Saskatoon. WestJet Encore’s regional flights, as well as Sunwing (which WestJet now owns) were unaffected.
In anticipation of a possible strike, 97 per cent of flights were cancelled for Friday, Capt. Lewall said.
“This is gonna take a team effort to get the operation up and running,” he said, urging his pilot colleagues to “go out, if you can, pick up overtime, and help this operation recover.”
This is a developing story.
WestJet CEO Alexis von Hoensbroech appeared in a video released Friday, announcing the news. Watch it here.
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