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Hours before the May 16 strike deadline set by the union that represents WestJet and Swoop pilots — the Air Line Pilots Association, Int’l (ALPA) — a 72-hour strike notice was issued to WestJet management and the government.
As of 3 a.m. ET on May 19, WestJet pilots plan to begin a strike, as they have not been able to reach an agreement with management on a new contract that addresses the pilots’ concerns. In response to the strike notice, WestJet management issued a lockout notice to ALPA.
While the Calgary-based carrier noted that “issuing notice does not mean a work stoppage will occur,” WestJet is beginning preparations to operate a reduced schedule — which will significantly impact WestJet and Swoop’s current networks. The airline is also “providing flexible change and cancel options for [customers] who wish to make alternate arrangements.”
In mid-April, ALPA had set a strike deadline of May 16 following the opening of a strike authorization vote, where 93 percent of the WestJet pilots who participated said they were in favor of a strike.
Since then, ALPA has remained “committed to the bargaining process” with WestJet management, hoping to negotiate concerns that were initially brought up nine months ago, such as higher wages, more flexible schedules, and better job security for WestJet pilots.
While the 72-hour strike notice could have been issued on May 13, ALPA agreed to extend negotiations “in a bid to keep the airline operating.”
The union continued: “This sign of good faith was to allow enough time to review additional proposals put forth by both parties. While progress was made on most non-cost items, both sides have been unable to reach an agreement.”
WestJet ALPA Master Executive Council chair, Capt Bernard Lewall, said back in April that the goal was ultimately to avoid a strike and “to reach an agreement that provides job security and career progression for our pilots and stability to the airline.”
The issue of job security became more of a concern when the federal government approved WestJet’s acquisition of Sunwing Vacations and Sunwing Airlines in mid-March 2023.
Lewall said the announcement of the acquisition “came without any consultation with WestJet management,” and that “additional information and clarification” was required “regarding any potential future merger of operations and its impact on our current contract negotiations and the pilot group as a whole.”
ALPA — which is the world’s largest airline pilot union, representing more than 69,000 pilots at 39 airlines in Canada and the United States — has also suggested that Canadian pilots earn roughly half of what pilots in the U.S. earn, and is fighting for a “North American industry-standard contract.”
ALPA Canada president Capt Tim Perry, who also flies for WestJet, said the airline’s pilots “want to continue being a major contributor to WestJet’s success. . . . However, in order to do that WestJet management needs to have a realistic understanding of today’s labor market, consistent with collective agreements other ALPA-represented pilot groups are signing with their employers.”
WestJet, however, issued a statement on May 10 insisting that its mainline pilots are “among the best paid pilots in Canada.” The airline said its ability to remain competitive would be at risk if ALPA’s wage expectations became a reality, adding that it “is not willing to put the future of the company and 15,000 jobs at risk by agreeing to a contract that isn’t financially viable for the long-term.”
In its announcement about the lockout notice, WestJet said it “brought forward a generous contract that if agreed to will make its first officers and captains the highest paid narrow-body pilots in Canada, with a significant advantage over the next best paying Canadian airline. Furthermore, the proposed contract makes generous advancements to address the concerns . . . surrounding job security and scope.
“Despite efforts to be reasonable and provide significant improvements to the current contract, the union maintains its expectation of closing in towards U.S.-like wages, despite living and working in Canada.”
ALPA’s Lewall has continued to emphasize that WestJet has a “pilot attraction and retention” problem and that “on average, a WestJet Group of Companies pilot leaves every 18 hours — mostly to fly for WestJet’s competitors.”
He says a new contract that addresses many of the airline’s labor problems could make WestJet “a career destination for pilots once again.”
Lewall continued: “We are hopeful today’s strike notice filing will provide management with the incentive to recognize just how dire the situation is and reach an agreement with us. That’s why we will continue to make our negotiators available 24/7 during the remainder of the 72-hour strike notice period.”
WestJet said on May 10 that it was “prepared with contingency planning” if the strike was to move forward. Industry sources have said those contingency plans include calling on Sunwing pilots to fill in for the WestJet pilots on strike, since Sunwing’s pilots are represented by a different union — Unifor Pilots Association of Canada.
However, ALPA says the strike “could include grounding all aircraft and effectively shutting down operations.”