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.
This story was updated on Monday, May 15 at 11:42 p.m. EST.
WestJet’s pilots have issued a 72-hour strike notice to WestJet management and the government, according to a press release that was distributed Monday night (May 15) by the Air Line Pilots Association, Int’l (ALPA), which represents roughly 1,600 flight crew at WestJet and subsidiary Swoop.
This now starts the clock on a 72-hour countdown to negotiate “a fair and equitable contract,” the ALPA said, before pilots can legally utilize all the options available to them under the Canada Labour Code.
The union could have filed the notice over the weekend, but in a bid to keep WestJet operating, it said it agreed to extend negotiations.
READ MORE: Flair “preparing contingency plans” in the event of WestJet strike
“This sign of good faith was to allow enough time to review additional proposals put forth by both parties,” the ALPA stated. “While progress was made on most non-cost items, both sides have been unable to reach an agreement that will serve the best interests of all parties involved.”
In the release, Capt. Bernard Lewall, chair of the WestJet ALPA Master Executive Council (MEC), noted that “after nine months of negotiating, management still fails to understand today’s labour market conditions, leading to a mass exodus of our pilots in search of better work opportunities, and more will follow if this agreement does not meet our pilots’ needs.”
“Without the economic and job security improvements our pilots require, WestJet will be parking planes, as they will not have enough pilots to operate them or accomplish its own growth strategy,” Capt. Lewall stated.
As of 3:00 a.m. MT on Friday, May 19, the WestJet pilots plan to begin lawful job action, which could include grounding all aircraft and effectively shutting down operations, the ALPA says.
“Flight disruptions are never an ideal outcome, especially given the tremendous support our guests have shown us, and we want to continue being a major contributor to our company’s success by helping WestJet realize its growth strategy,” stated Lewall. “However, WestJet pilots will withdraw our services to secure a contract that will fix many of the airline’s labour problems and make it a career destination for pilots once again.”
The ALPA claims that at the WestJet Group, a pilot leaves every 18 hours—"mostly to fly for WestJet’s competitors.”
“Negotiators continue to make proposals that will go a long way to rectifying WestJet’s pilot attraction and retention crisis by seeking better job security, industry-standard pay, and more flexible schedules to allow for a better work life balance—consistent with collective agreements that other ALPA-represented pilot groups are signing with their employers,” the ALPA said.
The union said its more than 69,000 pilots “stand behind the WestJet pilots as they ready themselves for possible legal job action.”
“We are hopeful today’s strike notice filing will provide management with the incentive to recognize just how dire the situation is and reach an agreement with us,” said Lewall. “That’s why we will continue to make our negotiators available 24/7 during the remainder of the 72-hour strike notice period.”
WestJet Group issues lockout notice
The WestJet Group issued a lockout notice shortly after ALPA’s strike notification was announced.
A work stoppage could occur as early as Friday, May 19, 2023, at 3 a.m. MT, WestJet confirmed in a statement.
“The decision to issue a lockout notice, in response to the actions taken by the union today, was not one that was made lightly, and we sincerely regret the inconvenience and uncertainty this continues to cause for our guests,” stated Alexis von Hoensbroech, CEO of the WestJet Group.
“It is our responsibility to ensure the safety and complete control of our network at all times, to minimize the risk of stranding our guests, our crews and our aircraft. Our commitment and priority remains at the bargaining table, where we will continue to work around the clock to come to a reasonable agreement as soon as possible, in an effort to prevent labour action.”
Issuing notice does not mean a work stoppage will occur. However, in the coming days, WestJet says it will take "all necessary actions" to manage the impacts "as much as possible."
READ MORE: WestJet strike: pilot talks continue; airline “ready to hold our ground,” says CEO
The airline says it will begin preparations to operate a reduced schedule. “Unfortunately, this will be a significant reduction from WestJet and Swoop’s current networks,” the carrier said.
The company says it is proactively managing changes and cancellations “to ensure the ability to communicate with guests in advance of changes.”
The airline also says it is providing flexible change and cancel options for those who wish to make alternate arrangements.
“Throughout negotiations, the WestJet Group has brought forward a generous contract that if agreed to will 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,” WestJet said. “Furthermore, the proposed contract makes generous advancements to address the concerns of WestJet and Swoop pilots surrounding job security and scope.
“Despite efforts to be reasonable and provide significant improvements to the current contract, the union maintains its expectation of closing in towards U.S.–like wages, despite living and working in Canada. This expectation is not reasonable and is impeding the WestJet Group’s ability to reach an agreement in advance of the upcoming long weekend.”
Mr. von Hoensbroech added: "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.”
Should flight delays or cancellations occur, impacted guests will be refunded or reaccommodated, "as applicable," the airline said.
For guests who booked directly with WestJet or Swoop, changes to existing travel will be directly communicated via the email available on file.
Guests who booked through a travel agent or online booking agency are being asked to contact them directly, the airline noted.
Sunwing flights unaffected
WestJet, last week, attempted to “set the record straight” on the situation, 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 says its pilot resignations are not as bad as the ALPA says they are.
Pilots representing both WestJet and discount carrier Swoop voted in favour of a strike mandate in April.
Last week, the pilots staged an informational picket at airports in Vancouver, Calgary and Toronto to raise awareness of their demands.
The negotiations pertain to WestJet and Swoop pilots exclusively – WestJet confirmed with PAX on Monday that there will be no impact on 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 was “preparing contingency plans," and ready to add flights, in the event of a strike at WestJet.
Under Canada’s Air Passenger Protection Regulations (APPR), airlines that cannot operate a scheduled flight must offer to book impacted passengers on a flight with another airline within 48 hours of the departure time.
After that point, passengers are entitled to a refund but may also accept a voucher with the airline if one is offered.
Some insurance plans might also help travellers recoup some costs of a cancelled trip.
Visit westjetpilots.com for updates from the ALPA.
Customers are also being directed to WestJet’s Guest Updates page or Swoop’s information hub for more info regarding flight status, travel changes and more.
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