Latest update: The union representing WestJet pilots issued at 72-hour notice of strike on Monday, May 15.
Fears that WestJet pilots might soon go on strike are looming over travellers who have tickets booked with the Calgary-based airline.
The Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), the union representing WestJet pilots, who are seeking better job protections, benefits and wages that will bring them in line with their North American counterparts, is set to declare on Saturday whether a work stoppage will start 72 hours later on May 16.
Pilots representing both WestJet and its discount brand Swoop voted in favour of a strike mandate in April. Earlier this week, pilots took part in an informational picket to raise awareness of their demands.
John Gradek, a lecturer with McGill University’s aviation management program who’s not involved in the negotiations, says it’s a toss-up whether there will be a strike or not, with the odds seemingly changing on an hour-to-hour basis.
He says there’s a “fairly large gap” between WestJet and its pilots, who are seeking a wage boost to offset what they say are some of the lowest rates of pay for pilots in North America.
Though the union claims these working conditions have meant WestJet is bleeding staff to the tune of 30 pilots a month, Gradek also says meeting the demands will be “a significant cost” to the airline.
WestJet, for its part, pushed back against the union’s claims in a statement released May 8.
The airline asserted that its mainline pilots are among the best paid in Canada and wages shouldn’t be compared to U.S. standards. It also claimed that resignations have not been as steep as the union says.
Both sides have indicated they remain ready to negotiate ahead of the possible strike deadline.
“WestJet is going to have to make some decisions as to what would be an acceptable level of increases versus what the union wants,” Gradek says.
“There might be a situation where there is no middle ground yet and WestJet has to shut down and as a result of the pilot strike.”
Here’s what you need to know about what happens if a WestJet and Swoop pilot strike begins on May 16.
What if I have a flight booked for the long weekend?
The threatened work stoppage would arrive ahead of the busy Victoria Day long weekend in Canada.
Lesley Keyter, who runs the Travel Lady Agency in Calgary, says she has received a flurry of calls from clients and the general public wondering how the strike could affect their plans.
“It varies from people who have to travel across the country perhaps to see a relative or to attend a wedding, all the way up to people who have booked an expensive cruise and they need to fly to Europe to get on that cruise ship,” Keyter tells Global News.
“What are they going to do if there’s no flight? That’s the dilemma.”
In its May 8 statement, WestJet said it “is prepared with contingency planning to minimize what could be significant impacts to guest travel,” but did not provide specifics.
Global News reached out to WestJet on Friday seeking clarification on those plans, but a spokesperson did not answer that question in a short response and pointed back to the May 8 statements.
“The WestJet Group remains committed to achieving a competitive agreement that acknowledges the importance of our pilots, while at the same time avoids unnecessary disruption for our guests and secures our financial future,” the spokesperson said via email Friday.
Under Canada’s airline passenger rights framework, airlines that cannot operate a scheduled flight must offer to book passengers on a flight with another airline within 48 hours of their departure time. After that point, passengers are entitled to a refund but may also accept a voucher with the airline if offered.
Should a strike begin on Tuesday, Gradek says he expects WestJet will immediately contact passengers with affected flights in the following week, but would hold off on rebooking offers for travel any further out in hopes a deal is struck with pilots before then.
While the Victoria Day long weekend might see a bump in traffic on other airlines, Gradek expects the disruptions from any cancelled WestJet flights will be fairly easily absorbed by capacity on other airlines.
If passengers had to rely on only Air Canada or Air Transat for make-up flights, Gradek says he might be nervous, but given the growth of regional and low-cost carriers such as Flair, Lynx, Canada Jetlines and Porter, he believes the rest of the air industry will be able to fill the gap.
“I don’t think we’re going to be in a situation where we’re going to be depriving passengers of alternative flights available to them based on a WestJet request for seats,” he says.
Where the disruption might be felt the most, however, is in Western Canadian markets where WestJet focuses its service. Cities such as Saskatoon and Regina in Saskatchewan might be left in the lurch if WestJet is taken out of the equation for any period of time, Gradek says, though he believes Air Canada and others may boost capacity there to offset any loss in the meantime.
“There will be some adjustments. Most Canadians should be in pretty good shape,” he says.
What else can I do?
The promise of rebooking a flight within 48 hours might be cold comfort for some travellers with connecting flights or those with time-sensitive tours, cruises or weddings to catch, Keyter notes.
For those on a tight schedule, there are a couple of options to consider, though they can be pricey.
Keyter says some travellers who have critical events to attend might want to book a fully refundable ticket on another airline that will get them there in time, just in case the strike disrupts their plans. If the strike doesn’t materialize, you could then get this cash back and continue with your original itinerary.
This can be a “very expensive form of insurance,” she notes, because fully refundable airfare is typically the most costly option — but that premium might be worth it if you have a more expensive cruise waiting at your destination, for instance.
More traditional insurance plans can also come into play here, but Keyter says you’ll have to check the wording of your policy carefully.
Insurance coverage that includes “cancel for any reason” or with language specifically including labour action could see you recoup some costs on your trip, though she says this might only cover 50 to 80 per cent of your total expense.
Overall, Keyter says there’s no right answer for travellers wondering whether they need to take extreme action to make sure their flight plan is safe amid a looming strike.
“I truly wish I had a crystal ball because I would love to be able to give people an answer, but I don’t,” she says. “It’s a time of great uncertainty.”
Gradek says that no matter how the WestJet pilots dispute is resolved, this could mark the first of a few similar disruptions for the airline industry in the months ahead.
Air Canada and Air Transat pilots are up for negotiations next year, he says, with similar issues expected to be on the table.
Keyter says wage pressures in the travel industry are popping up at the same time as consumers are getting back into the rhythm of travel after COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, which is already driving up demand on airfare.
If WestJet and other airlines make significant concessions for pilots, those costs will hit the carriers’ bottom lines and have to be absorbed somewhere, she says.
“When that happens, who ends up paying is the customer,” Keyter says. “So it’s going to be an interesting ride for sure to see how this all ends up.”
— with files from Global News’ Anne Gaviola