Travellers in Winnipeg frustrated as WestJet cancels hundreds of flights amid strike

Travellers stranded at the Winnipeg airport say they’re confused and angry after an unexpected labour strike threw the plans of thousands of WestJet passengers into chaos on the Canada Day long weekend.

Hundreds of WestJet flights have been grounded across the country after the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association, or AMFA, announced a surprise strike Friday.

The Calgary-based airline said earlier Saturday about 235 flights were cancelled, affecting about 33,000 people. It said another 150 flights were expected to be cancelled Saturday afternoon.

The labour action disrupted travel plans for people at Winnipeg’s Richardson International Airport this weekend, as more than 10 flights at the airport had been cancelled as of Saturday afternoon, according to the Winnipeg Airports Authority.

Holly Warners, who landed in Winnipeg shortly before noon, said everything was going smoothly until she was informed about the cancellation after her first layover in a multi-stop journey from Pratt Falls, Ont., to her home in Anchorage, Alaska.

“I assume I’m going to have to spend the night in Winnipeg, but no one’s talked about a hotel. No one’s given me any options for the next flight,” she said.

“There’s people crying, there’s people walking around. Their vacations are ruined. I’m just trying to get home and it’s very, very frustrating.”

‘Nobody knows anything’

Silvia Pinto and Jean Paul Aragon said they arrived at the Winnipeg airport from Calgary at 10 p.m. Friday, only to be notified two hours later their flight to Cancun — to celebrate Aragon’s birthday — was cancelled.

Pinto said Saturday she’d been on the phone for hours trying to find a solution.

“I think all the lines collapsed,” she said. “We’ve been on the phone for, like, 13 hours already, and no one is answering.”

A plane parked at a terminal, with the words 'WestJet' seen along its side.
Parked planes are shown in a file photo. The Winnipeg Airports Authority said that more than 10 flights had been cancelled at Richardson International as of Saturday afternoon. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Pinto said WestJet did send her a message saying her cost for the flight would be refunded, but that it could take 30 days. She was forced to book a new flight.

“My five-day vacation just became a two-day vacation, because now I have two days, 48 hours ahead of travel,” she said.

“I’m going to cry, sorry. It’s been crazy — like, nobody has any answers,” she said. “They don’t answer the phone and I write.… Nobody knows anything.”

The labour action comes after the federal government directed the Canada Industrial Relations Board to impose binding arbitration between WestJet and the union, after discussions on a new labour agreement reached an impasse. 

On Friday, the mechanics’ union said while roughly 680 workers were going ahead with strike action, it remains engaged in dialogue with the Canada Industrial Relations Board to resolve the contract impasse.

Union members holding signs stand together in a picket line.
Striking WestJet mechanics form a picket line at Vancouver International Airport on Saturday. (Jan Zeschky/CBC)

AMFA’s legal counsel said even with the binding arbitration order, the union still has “a constitutional right” to take strike action.

The union’s Friday statement said “the airline’s unwillingness to negotiate with the union made the strike.”

WestJet, meanwhile, said it is “outraged” with the move.

With a binding arbitration order in place, “the only reason for this union to continue with a strike action is to create damage, disrupt the travel plans of thousands of Canadians over the July long weekend and to inflict significant costs on our business,” company president Diederik Pen said in a statement.

WestJet is asking people to check their flight status before they head to the airport.

But as she tries to get home to Alaska, Warners said the messaging does little to help.

“I would like for WestJet to know that it’s very impactful to people,” said Warners. “I understand there’s a strike, [but] I guess … the lack of empathy and the lack of help is really frustrating.”