WestJet ramping up after reaching deal with pilots, but not before cancelling flights

The airline had grounded the bulk of its fleet Thursday, parking their 130 planes at airports from Vancouver to Halifax and leaving thousands of travellers in limbo across the country

WestJet and its pilots union have averted a strike | Chung Chow, BIV

The WestJet Group averted a strike after reaching a last-minute deal with the airline's pilots early Friday, but not before cancelling hundreds of flights and upending the long weekend plans of thousands of passengers. 

Travellers stuck at airports expressed frustration with cancellations and delays, while others took to social media with stories of ruined vacations. 

WestJet said Friday it's ramping up operations as quickly as possible, but warned that the full resumption of operations will take time. The airline encouraged travellers to continue to check the status of their flight before heading to the airport.

WestJet and the Air Line Pilots Association announced a tentative deal to avoid the job action early Friday morning after eight months of negotiations.

Aviation expert John Gradek called it a "landmark agreement," saying it will set the standard for labour negotiations going forward. 

"What you're seeing is a tectonic shift starting to appear in terms of the way in which union and management labour relations are going to evolve in Canadian aviation," said Gradek, a former Air Canada executive and head of McGill University's aviation management program.

The pilot's union will likely apply the same approach in bargaining with other airlines, he said. 

"The pilot wage rate in Canada is going to go up, there's no doubt about it," Gradek added. 

But he said pilot wages rising likely won't lead to higher prices for consumers, because of competition from ultra low-cost carriers.

While the tentative agreement avoided a strike, many travellers were still confronted by cancelled flights and foiled holiday plans. 

WestJet cancelled 231 flights from Thursday through Saturday, topping the global list two days in a row, according to flight tracking service FlightAware.

The shutdown affected dozens of routes within Canada and to the U.S. and overseas, while flights at the WestJet Encore regional service and the WestJet-owned Sunwing Airlines were unaffected.

At Toronto's Pearson Airport, WestJet travellers described cancelled and delayed flights, mainly to Central and Western Canada.

Tommy Gilligan was set to be on flight to Calgary early Friday for a family wedding and holiday in Banff, Alta. 

“They told us at 4:30 in the morning that it was going to be delayed, and now they just cancelled it,” the 65-year-old from Burlington, Ont., said. 

“My wife pulled some strings and we’re on a six o’clock flight tonight. I’m not happy right now — my whole family’s waiting for us."

The strike-related scheduling chaos with Canada’s second-largest airline is “ totally ridiculous" and “not one bit fair to us," Gilligan said. “I don’t think I’ll use WestJet after this weekend."

Other travellers shared his frustration with the airline's handling of the situation, while also expressing support for the pilots. 

Diran Adenugba, 44, was at the airport for a flight home to Saskatoon, the final leg in his return journey from Atlanta. His original flight was scheduled to leave Thursday evening, but was cancelled after WestJet grounded planes ahead of the strike deadline.

"I was rescheduled to fly out this morning at 9 a.m.,” Adenugba said. “I got here to find out that flight was cancelled yet again.” 

He was rebooked on an afternoon flight to Saskatoon via Winnipeg, and said he has his fingers crossed he will get out of Toronto on Friday.

Still, despite the inconveniences, Adenugba remained sympathetic to the pilot’s grievances.

"I’m not a pilot," he said. "But if I were in their shoes, I’d want my demands to be met."

Travellers will likely blame the labour dispute and ensuing flight disruptions on WestJet, not the pilots, Gradek said. 

The airline "was concerned about the value of the brand and their market share," he said. "WestJet basically said, 'Let's cut our losses.'"

Still, the bill for hundreds of cancelled and delayed flights will be "in the millions" for WestJet, Gradek said. 

WestJet CEO Alexis von Hoensbroech said the agreement with the pilots provided "meaningful improvements to job security and scope, working conditions and wages."

"We appreciate we were able to arrive at a deal, however, recognize the impact on our guests and we sincerely appreciate their patience during this time," he said.

Bernard Lewall, who heads the Air Line Pilots Association's WestJet contingent, had said the workers' issues revolved around pay, job security and scheduling, with pilots earning roughly half of what some of their U.S. counterparts make.

In a statement, Lewall said union leaders believe the tentative deal "delivers on the goals of better job security, enhanced compensation, and more flexible schedules to allow for a better work/life balance consistent with collective agreements other ALPA-represented pilot groups are signing with their employers."

"This contract will also help solve many of WestJet's pilot attraction and retention issues, benefiting everyone involved from our company to our passengers and fellow employees."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 19, 2023.

— With files from Kiernan Green in Toronto and Christopher Reynolds in Montreal. 

The Canadian Press