WestJet starts cancelling flights as pilot strike deadline looms


WestJet started cancelling flights Thursday in anticipation of a pilots’ strike despite ongoing talks between the union and the airline.

With a work stoppage set for Friday, WestJet CEO Alexis von Hoensbroech said in a May 18 statement that the company wanted to avoid “abandoning aircraft in remote locations without support.”

WestJet has now parked the majority of its 737 and 787 fleet. WestJet Encore, WestJet Link and limited 737 flights will continue to operate, von Hoensbroech said.

“We deeply regret the disruption this will have on the travel plans of our guests and the communities and businesses that rely on our critical air service,” he said.

“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.”

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

WestJet’s chief pilot said in a letter to union members and obtained by Global News earlier this week that the airline had offered “significant” wage increases that would make them among the highest-paid workers in Canada.

The union called that data “cherry-picked.”

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.

Low-budget Flair Airlines, a direct Swoop competitor, has added additional flights to its Vancouver-Calgary and Vancouver-Edmonton routes in anticipation of WestJet pilots going ahead with a strike.

More than 1,800 pilots at WestJet and its Swoop subsidiary are poised to walk off the job as of 5 a.m. eastern on Friday after the union issued a strike notice Monday night.

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.

On Wednesday, Transport Minister Omar Alghabra encouraged the two sides to reach a resolution, noting Labour Minister Seamus O’Regan and a mediator — Peter Simpson, who heads the federal mediation service — are on the ground.

“We remain at the bargaining table, unequivocally committed to achieving a deal as soon as possible, but are equally ready to weather labour action for as long as it takes to arrive at a reasonable outcome,” von Hoensbroech said.

“Any guest impact is too high of a cost in the wake of these negotiations and we sincerely apologize that valued guests were caught in the middle of an avoidable conflict.”

— with files from Global News’ Sean Boynton and The Canadian Press

&copy 2023 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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