WestJet cancels 92 flights and counting ahead of Friday pilot strike deadline

WestJet has cancelled close to 100 flights as negotiations with its pilots’ union go down the the wire.

Some 1,800 pilots at the carrier and its Swoop subsidiary are poised to walk off the job as of 3 a.m. MT after the Air Line Pilots Association issued a strike notice Monday.

On Thursday morning, Calgary-based WestJet said in a statement it had begun to cancel flights along its network “to minimize the potential for being stranded.”

As of noon ET on Thursday, the airline had cancelled at least 92 flights scheduled for Thursday, about one sixth of its normal load. A handful of flights scheduled for Friday and beyond have also already been cancelled.

On the company’s website, online bookings for flights on major routes such as Calgary-Vancouver and Toronto-Calgary are unavailable to book until Tuesday.

The federal labour minister and the government’s head mediator, as well as WestJet’s CEO and the pilots’ union leaders, have all descended on a hotel near Toronto’s Pearson airport to work toward a deal.

The company’s statement says that the WestJet Group is parking the majority of its 737 and 787 fleet in a “measured, phased and safe approach,” given that a tentative agreement has not yet been reached. The airline says WestJet Encore, WestJet Link, as well as limited 737 flights, will continue to operate during this time.

WestJet chief executive Alexis von Hoensbroech says the union’s demands are extreme, while the travel plans of thousands of Canadians hang in limbo ahead of the May long weekend.

In the airline’s statement, he described the state of negotiations as a “stalemate.”

“We remain at a critical impasse with the union and have been left with no choice but to begin taking the painful steps of preparing for the reality of a work stoppage,” von Hoensbroech said.

WATCH | What are WestJet passengers doing? 

WestJet travellers buying backup flights as pilot strike, lockout loom

1 day ago

Duration 1:16

The Calgary-based company said that it would waive fees for passengers cancelling or changing flights through the weekend, when the strike/lockout is set to begin if an agreement isn’t reached.

For its part, the union sought to place the blame on the airline’s management, and stressed it is doing whatever it can to avoid a disruption.

Bernard Lewall, who heads the union’s WestJet contingent, says the workers’ issues revolve around pay, job security and scheduling, with pilots earning roughly half of what some of their U.S. counterparts make.

“We recognize flight disruptions are never an ideal outcome in this process for our pilots or passengers, that’s why our negotiators are making themselves available until the end of the 72[-hour] notice period to reach a negotiated agreement that will help fix WestJet’s pilot attraction and retention crisis and allow the airline to recognize its growth strategy,” Lewall said in a statement emailed to CBC News.

Pay, scheduling issues

With more than 4,000 flights scheduled over the next seven days, WestJet carries 28 per cent of Canada’s domestic market, while Air Canada runs 47 per cent, according to flight data firm Cirium.

The airline is advising travellers to check the status of their flight before leaving for the airport, and to visit WestJet’s Guest Updates page or Swoop’s information hub for more information regarding flight status and travel changes.

Geraint Harvey, a professor at Western University who studies the airline industry, says the labour strife is likely to harm the company in the long run, either reputationally or otherwise.

“It is a major problem,” he told CBC News in an interview, noting that any service disruption could have a lasting impact on the airline’s business.

“I would imagine anybody thinking about going somewhere in the next few months is probably going to go to Air Canada or some other carrier.”

Passenger in ‘panic mode’

Muzammil Murad is among those passengers who already wishes he did exactly that.

He went to Delray Beach, Florida, on business, and arranged for his wife and two children to fly down to meet him on WestJet this weekend to add a vacation on to the end of his trip.

Muzammil Murad
WestJet passenger Muzammil Murad managed to find alternative arrangements to get his family on vacation, after WestJet cancelled his flights. (Shawn Benjamin/CBC)

His family was scheduled to fly out of Pearson airport in Toronto to Fort Lauderdale on Friday, but were informed on Thursday that the flight has been cancelled. The airline has refunded him the $850 for the cancelled flights, but that refund won’t cover the $6,000 vacation he has planned once they get to Florida.

“I’m going into a little bit of a panic mode trying to figure out how we can get the rest of the family to come down … so that we can get together and at least salvage what’s left of our trip,” he told CBC News in an interview.

Instead of a direct flight, he has managed to get his family onto a trip with two layovers, through Montreal and New York City, at a cost of $1,800, a figure that won’t be covered by his travel insurance. But to him it was a question of choosing the option that was the least bad.

“Should I stand to lose $6,000, or spend the extra $1,800 to make something of this trip,” he said.

Another traveler, Tim Bradley, was scheduled to fly home from Pearson to Vancouver on Thursday, when he was informed by the airline that it had been cancelled. After spending many frustrating hours online and on the phone with the airline, he decided to pay out of pocket for an alternative flight on Flair, departing Friday.

He says he’s feeling very frustrated by the entire experience. “I’m a project manager and part of my job is any time there is obstacles and challenges to reduce the impact on customers,” he told CBC News.

“WestJet has not done a very good job of that.”