A labour conflict at Canada’s second-largest airline could disrupt the travel plans for thousands of travellers this upcoming Victoria Day long weekend.
WestJet’s pilots’ union, the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), announced late Monday (May 15) that 1,850 pilots could walk off the job early Friday morning (May 19) as negotiators continue to push for a new agreement.
WestJet last night responded with a notice that it plans to lock out employees on the same day.
As of 3:00 a.m. MT this Friday, WestJet could begin lawful job action, which could lead to the grounding of all aircraft and shut down operations, the ALPA said.
Appearing on Breakfast Television Tuesday morning (May 16), Capt. Bernard Lewall, chair of the WestJet ALPA Master Executive Council (MEC), said the plan is to hunker down in Toronto for the next three days and try to reach a “fair deal.”
“We don’t want to go on strike,” Capt. Lewall told BT’s Tammie Sutherland, appearing via video link. “We want to serve our passengers.”
But what happens on Friday when the clock strikes 3 a.m. and there’s still no resolution?
“If we call the strike, if the company calls a lockout, any aircraft that’s already in the air will go to its destination, but once it’s on the ground, the pilots will walk off the plane,” Capt. Lewall explained.
If anything, that will likely aggravate an already-sensitive customer base, which has spent the past year coping with a broken aviation ecosystem brought on by post-pandemic inefficiencies.
“WestJet has struggled since we came out of the pandemic,” Capt. Lewall told BT. “This is another piece of the struggle that I was hoping would never come to be.”
Pilots representing both WestJet and discount carrier Swoop voted in favour of a strike mandate in April.
The pilots are seeking better job protections, benefits and wages that they say will bring them in line with their U.S. counterparts.
In a statement last night, WestJet said it has proposed a “generous contract” would make its first officers and captains the “highest paid narrow-body pilots in Canada, with a significant advantage over the next best paying Canadian airline.”
But the expectation of closing in towards U.S.–like wages, despite living and working in Canada, is “not reasonable,” said Alexis von Hoensbroech, CEO of the WestJet Group.
The CEO said that point, in particular, is impeding the WestJet Group’s ability to reach an agreement before the long weekend sets in.
"We truly value the work and contributions of our pilots. We believe with a commitment from both parties, an agreement is achievable and are committed to offering pilots a competitive collective agreement with meaningful improvements for the Canadian market, whilst remaining competitive at the same time,” von Hoensbroech said.
Capt. Lewall, in his BT interview on Tuesday, clarified that pilots aren’t expecting the pay gap, in relation to U.S. levels, to close completely.
“We expect it to be narrowed and we don’t expect it to keep widening,” he said. “With [WestJet’s] latest offer, that gap is still widening.”
The captain says WestJet pilots, as a result, are leaving the company at a high rate.
“We’ve lost 260 over last year to other airlines, both in Canada and the U.S.,” he said, noting that 39 per cent of WestJet pilots will look elsewhere if a “good contract” isn’t secured.
WestJet, last week, attempted to “set the record straight” by saying that its mainline pilots are among the best paid in Canada and wages shouldn’t be compared to U.S. levels.
The airline also maintains that pilot resignations are not as bad as the ALPA says they are.
Last week, the pilots staged an informational picket at airports in Vancouver, Calgary and Toronto to raise awareness of their demands.
In preparation for a potential disruption, WestJet, which has about 31 per cent of the domestic market, says it will operate a reduced schedule and provide “flexible” change and cancellation arrangements.
According to Cirium data, the airline has 540 flights scheduled for Friday, and 457 for Saturday.
Should flight delays or cancellations occur, impacted guests will be refunded or reaccommodated "as applicable," the airline said Monday night.
For guests who booked directly with WestJet or Swoop, changes to existing travel will be directly communicated via the email available on file.
Customers who booked through a travel advisor or online booking agency are being asked to contact those channels directly.
Under Canada’s Air Passenger Protection Regulations (APPR), airlines that cannot operate a scheduled flight must offer to rebook impacted passengers on a flight with another airline within 48 hours of the original departure time.
After that point, passengers are entitled to a refund but may also accept a voucher with the airline if one is offered.
The Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA) has outlined information for WestJet customers here.
Some insurance plans might also help travellers recoup some costs of a cancelled trip.
The negotiations apply to WestJet and Swoop pilots only – WestJet confirmed with PAX on Monday that there will be no impact to Sunwing’s operations if a strike occurs.
PAX asked for clarification given that the WestJet Group recently completed its acquisition of Sunwing.
Meanwhile, low-cost carrier Flair Airlines said Monday that it is ready to add flights to its schedule if the WestJet strike goes ahead.
Visit westjetpilots.com for updates from the ALPA.