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WestJet faces ‘damage control’ after strike. What passengers should know

Click to play video: 'WestJet strike settled, delays persist '
WestJet strike settled, delays persist 
WATCH: The mechanics strike at WestJet is over but pain for travellers continue. As Sean O’Shea reports, it will take several days for WestJet to get its schedule back together. In the meantime, customers can’t count on getting to their destinations on time – Jul 2, 2024

More than 100,000 travellers have seen their flight plans thrown into disarray as WestJet works to restore service from the long weekend strike, but the airline is warning that disruptions could stretch on for days.

The Calgary-based air carrier confirmed in a release Tuesday that a total of 1,137 flights have so far been cancelled before, during or after the long weekend strike that saw WestJet maintenance engineers take to the picket line.

A deal was reached between the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association (AMFA) and the Calgary-based airliner on Sunday night, ending the 48-hour strike.

Click to play video: 'WestJet strike still impacting travellers at Vancouver airport'
WestJet strike still impacting travellers at Vancouver airport

Despite intervention from the federal government to impose binding arbitration between the parties ahead of the July long weekend, the Canada Industrial Relations Board had allowed the strike to go ahead. The deal was reached without need for binding arbitration, said Ian Evershed, a spokesperson with AMFA, in a statement to Global News on Tuesday.

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The strike saw chaos at Canadian airports for thousands of passengers who had airfare booked with WestJet over the weekend, the start of the busy summer travel season.

Click to play video: 'Deal reached in WestJet mechanics strike, passengers still stranded'
Deal reached in WestJet mechanics strike, passengers still stranded

The airline said it had cancelled 1,054 flights scheduled between Thursday and Monday. Some 75 flights were cancelled as of noon Eastern time on Tuesday, with eight trips already scratched for Wednesday.

With some 680 maintenance workers on strike over the weekend, the airline said it grounded 130 jets at 13 airports over the weekend. As of Tuesday, 125 aircraft out of WestJet’s 180-jet fleet were active.

It’s going to take time to get back up to full operations, WestJet warned in a statement Monday.

“Given the significant impact to WestJet’s network over the past few days, returning to business-as-usual flying will take time and further disruptions over the coming week are to be anticipated as the airline gets aircraft and crew back into position,” the airline said.

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Evershed said in an email Tuesday that AMFA members are not the cause for the hold-up. All maintenance engineers have reported back to work and are “doing everything they can to safely get the airline up and running,” he said.

What happens for passengers now?

John Gradek, an aviation management professor at McGill University, tells Global News that it’s “no trivial task” for an airline to ramp up operations after a stoppage like this. In addition to calling back maintenance workers, flight attendants and pilots, he explains that parked aircraft in hangars spread across the country need to go through a full mechanical inspection before they can get back in the air.

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Even when WestJet is able to run its typical schedule again, it now has the additional task of having to reschedule travel for tens of thousands of disrupted passengers from the weekend. Gradek says that many of WestJet’s existing flights this week are likely already booked up, and the carrier might have to book customers on competitors’ flights to get travellers to their final destinations.

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Gradek says he expects it could take up to a week and a half before the issues are resolved.

“It’s going to be one, a long process, and two, an expensive process, for WestJet,” he said.

Click to play video: 'WestJet flights resume'
WestJet flights resume

Some passengers who were left stranded over the weekend may have limited recourse.

Speaking to Global News last week before the strike began, Sylvie de Bellefeuille, director of legal services at Montreal-based consumer rights group Option consommateurs, said a labour dispute is usually considered out of a carrier’s control under Canada’s Airline Passenger Protection Regulations (APPR).

An airline must offer to rebook a traveller within the next 48 hours on the next available flight, she said, and a passenger is entitled to reimbursement if the flight can’t be rebooked within that period. WestJet confirmed Tuesday that it would offer refunds to customers who couldn’t be rebooked within the 48-hour window.

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But unlike disruptions during the labour stoppage, Gabor Lukacs, president of the Air Passenger Rights advocacy group, told the Canadian Press that WestJet is to blame for the travel woes Tuesday. He said it’s reasonable for the airline to take up to 24 hours to ramp back up, but not much longer.

“That grace period has long passed. WestJet now has to deliver. If they’re not able to deliver, that’s fully within WestJet’s control and it is not a safety issue. It’s just not managing their business well.”

For flights cancelled post-strike, Lukacs said WestJet is responsible for providing meals and accommodation, up to $1,000 in compensation, plus rebooking a flight that departs within nine hours of the original departure time on the carrier’s network or that of its competitors.

“If they don’t do it, the passenger can go out, buy a ticket for themselves, and then they can get a judge to order WestJet to pay up,” he said.

Martin Firestone, president of Travel Secure Inc., told Global News last week that travel insurance may cover trip cancellation or interruption due to the strike, but only if it was purchased before the threat of the work stoppage was a “known cause.” Anything coverage purchased on short notice in the lead-up to the strike is unlikely to recoup much in a claim, he said.

WestJet might have a number of fuming customers seeking compensation for car rentals and hotel stays during the strike period, Gradek says. Beyond its APPR obligations, he suggests the airline may have to offer additional recourse to keep its reputation from taking a nosedive.

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“Depending how it handles all of these claims for compensation and for refunds and all kinds of stuff, that’ll be fairly telling in terms of damage control that WestJet has to undertake.”

Global News reached out to WestJet for comment on how it plans to compensate customers for the strike disruptions but has yet to receive a response.

Whose fault is the travel chaos?

In a statement announcing the end of the strike, the AMFA thanked Canadians for their patience over the weekend.

“We believe this outcome would not have been possible without the strike, but we do regret the disruption and inconvenience it has caused the traveling public over the Canada Day holiday period. The timing was coincidental as the negotiation process did not follow a predictable timeline,” the statement read.

Gradek says that WestJet played a bit of “Russian roulette” by letting the threat of a strike linger until the long weekend. The airline might’ve been hoping that federal government intervention would skirt a strike, but the CIRB’s decision to uphold the strike mandate “backfired” on the carrier, he says.

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“It was a calculated risk on the part of WestJet. They lost,” Gradek says.

The union had also previously accused the airline of “brinkmanship” as negotiations stalled in the lead-up to the Canada Day long weekend.

Click to play video: 'Cancellations continue despite WestJet strike ending'
Cancellations continue despite WestJet strike ending

Global News also asked WestJet whether it was counting on federal government intervention to avert a long weekend strike but has yet to receive comment.

The airline had said previously in a statement Sunday that the strike served “no purpose other than to inflict maximum damage to our airline and the country.” It added that it was looking for the federal government to weigh in on whether binding arbitration and a strike could exist simultaneously.

WestJet added in its statement on Monday that a “lack of clarity from the government and the decisions taken by the CIRB allowed for a strike to occur amidst binding arbitration.

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“With no path forward to resolution, both parties made essential movements to find common ground and achieve an agreement,” the airline said.

Global News reached out to Labour Minister Seamus O’Regan Jr. to ask for his response to WestJet’s claims. A spokesperson for his office responded to say that the minister would have “more to say in the coming days” about the resolution and any action he might take but could not provide further comment or a timeline for the response.

O’Regan had previously expressed frustration Monday in a post on X that the strike had worn Canadians’ patience “too thin.”

“Collective bargaining is the responsibility of the parties. The responsibility of the government is to facilitate and mediate that bargaining. The parties finally did their jobs,” he wrote.

Click to play video: 'WestJet issues persist for Alberta travellers'
WestJet issues persist for Alberta travellers

— with files from Global News’ Uday Rana and Aaron Sousa and The Canadian Press

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