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 3:42 p.m. EST
The head of WestJet says the airline is “ready to hold our ground” on what it believes is a reasonable deal for its pilots, which could take strike action as soon as this week.
In an update issued Friday (May 12), WestJet Group’s Chief Executive Officer Alexis von Hoensbroech addressed the ongoing contract negotiations with the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), the union that represents some 1,600 flight crew at WestJet and subsidiary Swoop.
“We are committed to getting a deal and to avoiding impacts on our guests in the coming days,” von Hoensbroech wrote. “However, we are equally ready to hold our ground on what is reasonable and to take actions to bring this to a resolution to give the Canadian travelling public, and our people, the certainty they deserve.”
WestJet passengers might soon be left in the lurch after the ALPA, last week, warned that pilots were able to file a 72-hour strike notice on Saturday (May 13), and that a legal walkout could come as soon as Tuesday (May 16).
But no such notice was issued over the weekend as talks continued to stall. On Sunday (May 14) at 5 p.m. EST, there was no sign (yet) of a strike or lock-out notice, according to an update the ALPA posted to Twitter.
“Negotiations [are] set to continue,” wrote the @WestJetALPA account on Sunday (May 14).
In a statement to PAX on Monday (May 15), WestJet said the labour negotiations pertain to WestJet and Swoop pilots exclusively, confirming that there will be no impacts to Sunwing operations if a strike is called.
PAX asked for clarification given that the WestJet Group recently completed its acquisition of Sunwing.
Back and forth
WestJet’s pilots are seeking better job protections, benefits and wages that they say will bring them in line with their North American counterparts.
Pilots representing both WestJet and discount carrier Swoop voted in favour of a strike mandate in April.
Then, last week, the pilots staged in an informational picket at airports in Vancouver, Calgary and Toronto to raise awareness of their demands.
The union says poor working conditions are causing some 30 pilots a month at WestJet to fly the coop.
READ MORE: WestJet pilots to picket at three major airports
WestJet, meanwhile, has attempted to “set the record straight,” noting last week 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.
That push back, however, might have only poked the bear – or snake – further.
The ALPA, two days after WestJet’s attempt to clarify the union’s claims, posted an image of a cobra to its Twitter, with the words: “Will strike if provoked.”
Both sides have indicated, on multiple occasions, that they are ready to negotiate ahead of a possible strike deadline.
“We hear them, loud and clear”
But the conflict presents a tense situation for WestJet customers as pilots could be in a legal position to strike just as the upcoming Victoria Day long weekend begins.
In his update, von Hoensbroech called WestJet’s pilots “instrumental in our organization and passionate about their future with our airline.”
“We see them and we hear them, loud and clear,” the CEO wrote.
Ever since negotiations began in September, WestJet, which has been focused on growing in Western Canada, has come to the bargaining table with an “unwavering commitment and willingness to make generous improvements to achieve a Canadian industry-leading contract,” von Hoensbroech pointed out.
“We are serious about getting a deal,” he wrote, one day before the initial 72-hour strike notice would have set in. “Despite our ongoing recovery from the significant financial strain from the COVID-19 pandemic, we have brought forward a contract that is both reasonable and addresses the top asks of our valued pilots namely job security and scope, working conditions and meaningful wage improvements.”
The CEO noted that the threat of a labour disruption is “creating immense stress and uncertainty for our guests and our people.”
“We are focused on a reasonable and timely resolution. We want this on behalf of our guests who are relying on us to come to an agreement, so they can be confident in the travel plans they have put their hard-earned money towards. And, we want this on behalf of the 15,000 employees of the WestJet Group, who also hang in the balance,” he wrote.
Ready “for any outcome”
In a press release issued in April, the ALPA said its goal is “to avoid a strike”; however, members are still prepared “for any outcome.”
“WestJet management still fails to recognize the value and expertise we bring to our company and passengers every day. That’s why every 18 hours, on average, a WestJet Group pilot leaves our company in search of a better opportunity,” stated Capt. Bernard Lewall, chair of the WestJet ALPA Master Executive Council (MEC).
“We want to continue being a major contributor to WestJet’s success and help the company recognize its growth strategy, but if management leaves us no other option, we will be ready to do what it takes to fight for our careers and the future of the airline.”
What’s the plan?
The ALPA is advising consumers that if they have booked a flight on WestJet from May 16 onward, they should contact the airline directly to find out about the refund policy should a disruption in flights take place.
In its May 8 statement, WestJet said it “is prepared with contingency planning to minimize what could be significant impacts to guest travel,” but did not share details.
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 ongoing updates.
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