WestJet says it’s laying off 1,700 pilots due to coronavirus crisis

Click to play video: 'WestJet announces layoffs for nearly 50% of staff due to COVID-19'
WestJet announces layoffs for nearly 50% of staff due to COVID-19
WestJet Airlines has announced 6,900 employees will be released from the company — some temporarily — due to COVID-19. The company says the reduction in staff comes as very few people are travelling due to the spread of the novel coronavirus – Mar 24, 2020

WestJet has sent layoff notices to 1,700 of its pilots Wednesday night as the toll from worldwide travel restrictions amid the coronavirus crisis continues to worsen, the airline confirms.

An email sent to all pilots from WestJet’s vice-president of flight operations John Aaron, which was obtained by Global News, says 700 pilots for WestJet, WestJet Encore and its budget subsidiary Swoop will be laid off effective May 1.

The remaining 1,000 pilots will be off the job as of June 1.

The email says the layoffs will be determined based on “reverse seniority” — meaning the most recently hired 1,700 pilots will affected.

WestJet confirmed the layoff plans in a statement, saying the move was a “last resort.”

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“The impact of COVID-19 on the aviation industry is colossal, and WestJet is making difficult but necessary decisions to right-size our airline to weather the crisis,” a spokesperson said.

The airline said pilots laid off on May 1 will remain on the payroll through the federal wage subsidy program, which WestJet has applied to participate in.

The program expires on June 6, however, meaning the airline will have to evaluate the availability of the subsidies for pilots laid off on June 1.

Click to play video: 'WestJet halts all commercial, international and transborder flights'
WestJet halts all commercial, international and transborder flights

A WestJet pilot based out of Calgary who supplied the email to Global News said neither the company nor the pilots’ union ALPA informed the employees of the wage subsidy plans.

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The pilot, who declined to share his name over fear of professional repercussion, said he expects to be among those laid off due to his seniority.

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ALPA’s WestJet pilots master executive council said in a statement that discussions are ongoing to mitigate the June 1 layoffs.

“We continue to negotiate with the Company to protect our members’ interests while preserving as many pilot positions as possible,” the union said.

“Events have moved very quickly up to this point so numbers may be subject to change with new developments.”

WestJet announced earlier this month it was putting 6,400 previously laid off employees back on its payroll thanks to wage subsidies.

Under the subsidy program, workers are paid 75 per cent of normal hourly wages or up to $847 per week. The emergency response program, on the other hand, offers $500 per week to unemployed Canadians.

Click to play video: 'Coronavirus outbreak: Morneau says wage subsidy to be paid out in 2 to 5 weeks'
Coronavirus outbreak: Morneau says wage subsidy to be paid out in 2 to 5 weeks

WestJet laid off roughly half its workforce last month — around 6,900 employees — as air travel plummeted over travel restrictions enforced by the Canadian government due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Airlines around the world have been hit by similar restrictions imposed by most major countries, forcing them to reduce their networks or ground their planes entirely. Hundreds of thousands of airline and airport workers have been laid off.

WestJet grounded 120 of its aircraft as it announced its layoffs in March. President and CEO Ed Sims said in a video message last week that the moves had reduced the airline back to its 2003 level of operations.

In March, Air Canada reached a deal with its pilots’ union to only furlough up to 600 pilots, with the remaining pilots agreeing to reduced wages and simplified contract language allowing early retirements.

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