WestJet cancels 407 flights as mechanics strike in surprise move on busy long weekend

A surprise strike by unionized airline mechanics at WestJet has left thousands of passengers wondering whether they would reach their destinations on Saturday after the airline cancelled 407 flights, affecting an estimated 49,000 passengers.

The airline said it will continue to ground its aircraft through to Sunday evening, and that its aiming to reduce its operating fleet to approximately 30 aircraft by that time, according to a release on Saturday evening.

The strike decision comes a day after Labour Minister Seamus O’Regan directed the Canada Industrial Relations Board (CIRB) to impose binding arbitration to solve outstanding collective agreement issues between the Calgary-based airline and the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association (AMFA).

In a statement Thursday, AMFA said there is no modern precedent for the minister’s action. The order followed two weeks of turbulent discussions between the union and the airline on a new deal.

AMFA said on Friday that roughly 680 workers went ahead with strike action against the company, but the union remains engaged in dialogue with the CIRB to resolve the impasse.

Six men with signs stand on a picket line.
Members of the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association stand on a picket line Saturday at Pearson International Airport in Toronto. (Clara Pasieka/CBC)

“The [aircraft maintenance engineers] were hopeful this action would be unnecessary but the airline’s unwillingness to negotiate with the union made the strike,” the statement reads.

Members to avoid unlawful job action, says union

The union said it will comply with the arbitration process and directed its members to avoid any unlawful job action.

The union’s legal counsel said the strike is within the union’s rights even with the minister’s order. Sam Seham said there was no explicit mention that job action by AMFA would be against the law.

“What was silent, or what was omitted, from the minister’s referral is any indication that AMFA’s right to strike had been curtailed or limited. That is a constitutional right,” he said.

“So in that silence, of course the right prevails, the minister did not take any steps to limit that right. There may be some confusion, but the striking and arbitrating are not mutually exclusive.”

The CIRB order, sent to CBC News, said the board found the ministerial referral does not have the effect of suspending the right to strike or lock out.

O’Regan issued a brief statement on Saturday morning, saying he was reviewing the board’s order and calling it “clearly inconsistent” with the direction he provided.

“I will be looking at additional steps to protect the interests of the employer, the union and all Canadians travelling over this national holiday weekend.”

In a followup statement later Saturday, O’Regan said he respects the authority of the CIRB and would be meeting with both parties involved in the dispute later in the day.

WestJet says strike designed to ‘create damage’

O’Regan previously referred WestJet and AMFA to the CIRB on June 18, but the two sides were unable to reach an agreement.

WestJet responded to AMFA going ahead with a strike on Friday, saying it is “outraged” with the move.

Union members holding signs stand together in a picket line.
Striking WestJet mechanics form a picket line at Vancouver International Airport on Saturday. The mechanics’ union went on strike Friday despite federal Labour Minister Seamus O’Regan imposing binding arbitration. (Jan Zeschky/CBC)

“The government has officially stepped in to provide binding arbitration and ensure we get to a resolution; 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,” said company president Diederik Pen in a statement.

During a news conference at WestJet headquarters in Calgary on Saturday morning, both Pen and the airline’s chief executive officer, Alexis von Hoensbroech, repeatedly said they were both outraged and devastated by the strike, with von Hoensbroech calling it “totally absurd.”

“The reason why you actually do a strike is because you may need to exercise pressure on the bargaining table. If there is no bargaining table, it makes no sense,” he said.

WATCH | WestJet boss has strong words for union:

WestJet CEO criticizes union for strike action

9 hours ago

Duration 1:50

WestJet CEO Alexis von Hoensbroech directed some strong words at the union representing the airline’s mechanics after strike action was called for the Canada Day long weekend.

He said that, as a result of the actions, the situation “will only grow in difficulty and magnitude.”

“So this is a very destructive thing, basically done by a rogue U.S. union that’s trying to make inroads into Canada and taking some practices in here that are very, very unusual,” said von Hoensbroech.

Tracey L. Epp, who practices labour and employment law in Winnipeg, says that a direction to send a dispute to binding arbitration does not prevent a union from going on strike or an employer from locking the workers out.

“The right to strike, the right to lockout, is a constitutional right,” she said.

Reading the evolving views of the labour minister in his posted comments after AMFA announced its strike plans, Epp believes there might have been a misunderstanding on his part as to what binding arbitration would actually accomplish.

“That tells me that although the federal minister may have actually intended to end or avoid any kind of a strike or a lockout, the direction that the minister got was that the CIRB, as an independent board … was not in a position to be able to order the mechanics back to work or to not strike,” said Epp.

Essential service?

She said it is theoretically possible for Ottawa to use the notwithstanding clause of the Charter to declare air travel an essential service and remove the constitutional right to strike, but she cautions that recent court cases have suggested essential services legislation might not be an appropriate way to exercise legislative authority and may breach Canadians’ rights under the Charter.

“So I think most governments right now are going to be very reticent to declare any kind of industry an essential service unless you can show that there’s a danger to life or a danger to public safety,” said Epp.

Alberta Premier Danielle Smith, in a post on the social media platform X, called on Ottawa Saturday morning to resolve the matter quickly.

“The travel plans of tens of thousands of Canadians over this long weekend and beyond are now in jeopardy,” the post said.

“WestJet customers expect an immediate resolution to this matter and for air travel to be restored.”

Travellers already frustrated with disruptions

The change in position on Friday seemed to shock both travellers and executives.

“Is my flight on Sunday in jeopardy?” asked Andrew Wheatley of Edmonton in a post to X.

“I support a union’s right to strike if it’s legal. And hopefully, they will get a good deal. But at the same time, I have to be at work Monday morning.”

WestJet had already cancelled roughly 25 flights scheduled for Thursday and Friday, ahead of potential job action.

WATCH | Toronto travellers share frustrations over flight cancellations:

‘So disappointed’: Toronto travellers frustrated by WestJet cancellations, delays

9 hours ago

Duration 0:53

Travellers at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport shared how WestJet’s flight cancellations following a surprise strike by unionized airline mechanics have impacted their plans.

Sarah Lacombe, a WestJet customer, was booked on a flight heading to Puerto Vallarta for her honeymoon, but was delayed due to unscheduled maintenance.

She’d already gone through the same situation earlier in the week after disruptions from the back-and-forth situation between the airline and AMFA. 

“We haven’t been on a vacation like this in eight years,” Lacombe said. “I want it to get back on schedule and not have any grounded flights for anybody travelling.”

WATCH | Honeymoon traveller affected by flight cancellation:

Traveller affected by WestJet delays says vacations ‘a hard thing to come by these days’

10 hours ago

Duration 0:36

Sarah Lacombe, who was scheduled to depart Calgary for her honeymoon, says she hopes WestJet flights get back on schedule after a surprise strike by unionized airline mechanics led to the cancellation of more than 200 flights on Saturday.

Check flight status before heading to the airport

WestJet says more than 250,000 passengers are scheduled to fly over the busy Canada Day long weekend, but the airline will begin parking aircraft in stations across Canada “with the intention of operating a significantly reduced schedule.”

Those hoping to travel with WestJet are being asked to check their flight status before leaving for the airport.

“The scale of this deliberate disruption is devastating and AMFA must be held accountable for their reckless actions,” said Pen in a statement.

Gabor Lukacs, president of advocacy group Air Passenger Rights, said travellers need to know their rights.

He said WestJet has an obligation under the law to find stranded passengers alternate travel arrangements within 48 hours, either through another of its flights or with a competitor.

People can also ask for a refund, although Lukacs said he recommends against doing so.

“I would urge passengers not to take a refund unless they are absolutely sure they don’t want to travel,” he said. “If you take a refund then WestJet can wash its hands of its obligations to you.”

On Saturday, Pen said WestJet would follow regulations and refund passengers while offering overnight hotel stays to those who are stranded.

“Further than that, we are not in a position to provide any additional compensation,” he said.

The airline said it plans to hold AMFA responsible for costs incurred during the strike. 

This isn’t the first time WestJet has been on the verge of a strike. Last year, the airline averted a strike in the early hours of the May long weekend, but before cancelling over 230 flights and forcing thousands of people to have their travel plans changed.

LISTEN | WestJet mechanics’ strike strands thousands of weekend passengers: 

Daybreak Alberta10:54WestJet mechanics strike in surprise long weekend move

We hear from a stuck passenger, a union member and airline expert after Friday’s announcement that mechanics will go on strike, stranding upwards of 20,000 passengers according to WestJet.