WestJet to cancel 150 flights as mechanics strike in surprise move on busy long weekend

WestJet announced it will cancel 150 flights — possibly affecting 20,000 travellers “with limited reaccommodation options available” — just hours after the airline’s mechanics said they would strike.

“Additional cancellations are anticipated by Saturday morning if the strike is not called off, or intervention does not happen immediately,” the company said in a release issued Saturday just after midnight in Calgary, where the airline is based.

“WestJet is actively and aggressively pursuing every avenue to minimize disruption, including asking for immediate intervention by the minister of labour.”

WestJet mechanics decided to strike one day after Labour Minister Seamus O’Regan directed the Canada Industrial Relations Board (CIRB) to impose binding arbitration to solve outstanding issues of the collective agreement between the airline and Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association (AMFA).

In a statement Thursday, AMFA said there is no modern precedent for the minister’s action.

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.

“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 any 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, says the board found the ministerial referral does not have the effect of suspending the right to strike or lock out.

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.

The silhouette of a person walking in an airport terminal in front of a window with a westjet plane outside.
Passengers walk past a WestJet plane at Calgary International Airport. The airline’s mechanics went on strike Friday despite Federal Labour Minister Seamus O’Regan imposing binding arbitration. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

“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.

“Given arbitration has been ordered, a strike has no leverage on the arbitration’s outcome, so it is pure retaliation of a disappointed union.”

Travellers already frustrated with disruptions

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

Sarah Lacombe, a WestJet customer, was booked on a flight heading to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, 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.”

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.

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