WestJet’s CEO on Wednesday called the salary demands of the pilots’ union unreasonable and said a “substantial” gap remains between the two sides, as the airline prepares for a looming strike with no signs of a deal.
Speaking to Global News from a hotel north of Toronto where bargaining is taking place, Alexis von Hoensbroech called WestJet’s most recent offer to the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) “very reasonable but also very generous,” yet added the two sides remain far apart as the early Friday deadline to avert a strike inches closer.
“The pilots’ expectations are fairly high,” he said.
“The gap (between the two sides) is still substantial, but … we have to find the resolution that makes sense for both parties and not just one.”
More than 1,800 pilots at WestJet and its Swoop subsidiary are poised to walk off the job as of 5 a.m. Eastern on Friday after the union issued a strike notice Monday night. No update was given Wednesday on the status of the ongoing talks.
A strike would see flight cancellations and delays across WestJet’s network, putting thousands of travellers in limbo as they wait for a deal to be made.
The CEO’s comments come after Global News obtained a memo sent to pilots by John Aaron, WestJet’s vice-president of flight operations, hours after ALPA issued their 72-hour strike notice Monday evening.
In the memo, Aaron said the airline’s latest offer — which expired after the strike notice was issued — would have raised salaries to “around” $300,000 for a narrowbody aircraft captain and $350,000 for a widebody aircraft captain, before overtime and other stipends.
Aaron said those wages would have made narrowbody captains and first officers, which make up most of WestJet’s pilots, the highest-paid in Canada.
But Tim Perry, ALPA’s national president, told Global News in an interview Tuesday evening the figures do not represent what all WestJet pilots would earn, adding there’s “a wide range” of both pilot salaries and what the airline was offering.
“We have members that are first officers and captains of all levels of seniority that fly all different types of airplanes,” he said. “And (the memo) certainly doesn’t paint the picture of all the members that we are trying to represent here.”
ALPA has said publicly that flight crews are working at a “steep discount” compared to their U.S. counterparts, and are paid 45 per cent of the North American average.
The U.S. Bureau of Labour says the median annual wage for American pilots, first officers and flight engineers was just over US$200,000 in May 2021.
The union has pointed to the 34 per cent pay hike over four years secured in March by Delta Air Lines pilots in March as a precedent they want WestJet to match.
But von Hoensbroech said it will be difficult for WestJet to close the U.S.-Canada pay gap, which he said was due to the different U.S. aviation market and the currency exchange rate between the two countries. He added the gap has existed for “decades.”
“If you want to close a gap that’s times two, then you can imagine how big the jump may be that will take them to where they would like to get,” he said. “And that, in this environment where we are, is not a reasonable expectation.”
The CEO also took issue with the union’s assertion that a WestJet pilot is leaving the airline for better pay elsewhere every 18 hours on average. ALPA says that works out to 340 pilots who have left the carrier over the past year and a half.
Von Hoensbroech said WestJet’s mainline fleet has hired three times the number of pilots who have resigned. He acknowledged that its regional segment, WestJet Encore, has lost plenty of workers, but noted that they are not part of the current bargaining.
As the May long weekend fast approaches, von Hoensbroech said he is committed to securing a “reasonable” deal before travellers face disruptions from a strike. But he cautioned customers to prepare for those disruptions anyway.
“If labour action happens, then guest travel will be disrupted,” he said. “So I can suggest that it is probably a prudent thing to do to think about alternatives and then plan for the worst, (but) let’s hope for the best.”
WestJet has introduced a “flexible change and cancel policy” allowing flight plans to be altered or cancelled without charge, he added.
Regulations entitle passengers to a rebooking within 48 hours of a cancellation or three-hour-plus delay, according to the Canadian Transportation Agency.
If the airline can’t meet those obligations, the passenger can opt for a refund or alternate travel arrangements, free of charge, on “any airline travelling on a reasonable route from the same airport” — or from a nearby airport, and the carrier must “transport you there,” the agency website states.
Low-budget Flair Airlines, a direct Swoop competitor, has added additional flights to its Vancouver-Calgary and Vancouver-Edmonton routes in anticipation of WestJet pilots going ahead with a strike.
On Wednesday, Transport Minister Omar Alghabra encouraged the two sides to reach a resolution, noting Labour Minister Seamus O’Regan and a mediator — Peter Simpson, who heads the federal mediation service — are on the ground.
“I do not want to put my finger on the scale,” Alghabra told reporters in Ottawa. “Ultimately the biggest obligation is to make sure that they deliver the service that they sold to customers.”
— with files from Global News’ Anne Gaviola and The Canadian Press
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