The WestJet Group avoided a strike by reaching a last-minute deal with its pilots early Friday, but not before canceling more than 100 flights and upending the long weekend plans of thousands of passengers.
Travelers stuck in airports have expressed frustration over cancellations and delays, and some have taken to social media with stories of ruined vacations.
WestJet said on Friday it was ramping up operations as quickly as possible, but warned that a full recovery would take time. The airline encouraged travelers to continue checking their flight status before heading to the airport.
The airline and the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) union, which represents the approximately 1,800 pilots of the WestJet and Swoop brands, announced early Friday morning an agreement in principle to avoid the strike, after eight months of negotiations.
Aviation expert John Gradek called it a “historic deal”, saying it would set the standard for union negotiations in the future.
“What you’re seeing is a tectonic shift that’s starting to appear in the way labor relations between unions and management are going to evolve in Canadian aviation,” said Gradek, a former Air Force executive. Canada and coordinator of the aviation management program at McGill University.
The pilots’ union will likely apply the same approach in negotiations with other airlines, he predicted.
“The rate of pay for pilots in Canada is going to go up, there’s no doubt about it,” Gradek said.
But he added that raising pilot wages is unlikely to result in higher prices for consumers, due to competition from ultra-low-cost carriers.
Although the tentative agreement averted a strike, many travelers still faced canceled flights and thwarted vacation plans.
WestJet canceled 231 flights from Thursday to Saturday, according to flight tracking service FlightAware.
The disruptions affected dozens of flights within Canada and to the United States and overseas, but not those on WestJet Encore regional service and WestJet-owned Sunwing Airlines, which were not part of the negotiations.
“My whole family is waiting for us”
At Toronto Pearson International Airport, WestJet travelers reported canceled and delayed flights, mostly to central and western Canada.
Tommy Gilligan was due to fly to Calgary early Friday for a family wedding and vacation in Banff, Alta.
“They told us at 4:30 a.m. it was going to be delayed, and now they’ve just canceled it,” the 65-year-old from Burlington, Ont.
“My wife managed to arrange for us to board a six hour flight tonight. I’m not happy right now. My whole family is waiting for us. »
The strike-related scheduling chaos with Canada’s second-largest airline is “totally ridiculous” and “completely unfair to us,” Gilligan said. I don’t think I will use WestJet after this weekend. »
Other travelers shared their frustration with the airline’s handling of the situation, while expressing their support for the pilots.
Diran Adenugba, 44, was at the airport for a flight back to Saskatoon, the final leg of his trip home from Atlanta. Its original flight was due to depart on Thursday evening, but was canceled when WestJet grounded several planes as a strike deadline approached.
“I got a change of reservation to fly this morning at 9:00 a.m., explained Mr. Adenugba. I arrived here to find the flight was canceled again. »
He was rebooked on an afternoon flight to Saskatoon, via Winnipeg, and hoped to be able to leave Toronto on Friday.
But despite the drawbacks, Mr. Adenugba remained sympathetic to the pilots’ cause.
“I’m not a pilot,” he said. But if I were in their shoes, I would want my demands met. »
An agreement with “significant improvements”
Travelers will likely blame the labor dispute and subsequent flight disruptions on WestJet, not the pilots, Gradek said.
The airline “was concerned about brand value and market share,” he said. “WestJet basically said, ‘Let’s cut our losses.’ »
Still, the bill for the hundreds of canceled and delayed flights will be “millions” for WestJet, Mr. Gradek calculated.
WestJet chief executive Alexis von Hoensbroech said the pilots’ deal brings “significant improvements to job security, breadth of employment, working conditions and wages”. .
“We are pleased that we were able to reach an agreement, but appreciate the impact our guests have had to endure and are sincerely grateful for their patience during this time,” he said.
Bernard Lewall, who heads the union’s WestJet contingent, said the dispute was over wages, job security and working hours. He pointed out that WestJet pilots earned about half the salary of some of their counterparts in the United States.
In a statement on Friday, Lewall said union leaders believe the tentative agreement achieves “the goals of better job security, improved pay and more flexible hours to allow for a better balance work/life, in accordance with the collective agreements that other pilot groups represented by ALPA are signing with their employers”.
“This contract will also help solve many of WestJet’s pilot attraction and retention issues, which will benefit everyone involved, from our company to our passengers and colleagues. »