WestJet is cutting hundreds of flights and laying off employees in an attempt to stay afloat amid the continued coronavirus restrictions that have hammered the travel industry since the pandemic started.
On Friday, the Calgary-based airline announced it’s going to reduce its “capacity,” which is the equivalence to 1,000 employees — through a combination of furloughs, temporary layoffs, unpaid leaves and reduced hours. There’s also a hiring freeze.
WestJet blamed the feds’ recent travel policy on COVID-19 testing.
On Dec. 30, the feds announced that Canada will require anyone entering the country to have a negative COVID-19 test before boarding their flight. The new rules kicked in on Jan. 7.
“Immediately following the federal government’s inbound testing announcement on December 31, and with the continuation of the 14-day quarantine, we saw significant reductions in new bookings and unprecedented cancellations,” Ed Sims, WestJet CEO, said in a statement.
“Regrettably, this new policy leaves us with no other option but to again place a large number of our employees on leave, while impacting the pay of others.”
The president of CUPE Local 4070, which represents WestJet, Encore and Swoop flight attendants, also took aim at what he called the federal government’s “continued attack on Canada’s airlines.”
“Ottawa has demonstrated zero understanding of the $36 billion in GDP Canada’s airlines contribute to our economy,” Chris Rauenbusch said in statement to Global News. “If this industry collapses, not only will jobs in our sector vanish, but so will jobs across multiple other sectors.”
The union said Friday’s layoffs include an additional 175 WestJet flight attendants and 24 Swoop flight attendants. This will be the second time these workers are laid off, after being laid off in April and later recalled back to work, according to the union.
WestJet said it will operate around 150 daily departures, “returning to levels not seen since June 2001.”
The company is removing around 30 per cent of its planned February and March capacity from the schedule.
This includes the elimination of more than 230 weekly international flights and 160 domestic flights.
Suspension of the 11 routes include:
- Edmonton to Cancun
- Edmonton to Puerto Vallarta
- Edmonton to Phoenix
- Vancouver to Cancun
- Vancouver to Phoenix
- Vancouver to Puerto Vallarta
- Vancouver to Cabo
- Vancouver to Los Angeles
- Vancouver to Palm Springs
- Calgary to Las Vegas
- Calgary to Orlando
There is also “seasonal” suspension of 13 international and destinations, which include: Antigua, Aruba, Barbados, Bonaire, Huatulco, Ixtapa, London (Gatwick), Mazatlan, Nassau (Bahamas), Port of Spain, San Jose (Costa Rica), Tampa, and Turks and Caicos.
The company said, “any impacted guests will be contacted directly.”
Canada’s commercial airlines have been hit hard by COVID-19, with passenger levels down as much as 90 per cent thanks to a combination of travel restrictions and fear of catching the illness.
In October, labour leaders called on Ottawa to provide immediate financial aid. The heads of two pilots’ unions and Unifor asked the federal government to offer carriers loans totalling $7 billion at a one per cent interest rate.
However, the feds said support for the airline industry will be contingent on carriers providing refunds to passengers whose flights were cancelled.
“Before we spend one penny of taxpayer money on airlines, we will ensure Canadians get their refunds,” Transport Minister Marc Garneau said on Nov. 8. “We will ensure Canadians and regional communities retain air connections to the rest of Canada.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau reiterated that contingency on Friday, saying Canada has already invested nearly $1.5 billion to support airline companies in the country — in conjunction with the wage subsidy and other measures — but that the government has certain expectations.
He said discussions about an industry-specific support package continues.
“We know the airline industry is extremely hard-hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. People shouldn’t be travelling and that, of course, is a direct challenge for the airline industries to manage through,” he said at a news conference in Ottawa.
“At the same time, we’ve made it very clear we expect people to be reimbursed, we expect regional routes to be protected – we expect certain things from the airline industry. Those discussions about how we ensure people are protected as we offer supports are continuing,” Trudeau said.
Conservative MP Michelle Rempel Garner released a statement after WestJet’s announcement, saying the company is “an important employer for the Calgary economy,” and it’s “another tragic blow to Calgarys already fragile economy.”
WestJet, which was bought by Onex Corp. in 2019, joined Air Canada, Air Transat and Sunwing, along with the National Airlines Council of Canada and the International Air Transportation Association, in unsuccessfully asking Ottawa for an 11-day extension to implement the new rules.
In October, WestJet suspended service to four Atlantic Canada cities and laid off 100 corporate employees, after laying off 4,000 workers since the pandemic began.
Sims said in Friday’s statement that other WestJet workers will also see an impact on their paychecks, calling the workforce cuts a “cruel outcome for loyal and hardworking staff who have been diligently working through the pandemic.”
— With files from Caley Ramsay, Global News and the Canadian Press