MONTREAL — WestJet cancelled more than 100 flights on Thursday after talks with the pilots’ union hit a “critical impasse,” throwing travel plans into turmoil for thousands of passengers ahead of the May long weekend.
Some 1,800 pilots at the carrier and its Swoop subsidiary are poised to walk off the job as of 3 a.m. MT after the Air Line Pilots Association served a strike notice Monday.
CEO Alexis von Hoensbroech said late afternoon Thursday that the two sides are "still significantly apart," but noted both remained at the negotiating table despite the "stalemate" — until past 3 a.m. Thursday morning.
"We basically announced to them that we will lock out all pilots as of tomorrow morning at 3 a.m." — if a tentative deal is not reached — he said in a phone interview from a hotel near Toronto's Pearson airport.
"Everyone knows that things have to come to a head now. And I truly hope that we can come come up with something that works," he said, from outside the windowless bargaining room.
WestJet began to park the bulk of its fleet Thursday morning using a "measured, phased and safe approach," the Calgary-based company said.
As of early Thursday evening, the carrier had cancelled 111 flights or 31 per cent of those scheduled for the day, according to tracking service FlightAware. The vast majority were out of Calgary or Toronto, with affected routes ranging from London to Las Vegas, Barcelona and Saskatoon.
Would-be travellers voiced their frustration on social media, with some saying they'd been stuck on the customer service line for hours and others posting screenshots of problems with refund processing.
Raahina Somani found herself marooned in Calgary on her way back to Vancouver from Edmonton after WestJet cancelled her Thursday night flight.
“Everything’s already gotten booked up. I'm not really sure what we're going to do," the master's student said, noting options with other airlines are becoming slimmer and costlier. "The prices have become so high. For me, my grandma and my dad to go back it's going to be upwards of $1,000."
Somani, 23, said her family has rented a car with the aim of driving back to Edmonton on Friday — after staying overnight with family in Calgary, since their hotel had filled up — and grabbing an Air Canada flight home over the weekend.
"My dad's a bit stressed because he's on certain medication ... and then my grandmother's sister is coming in (to Vancouver) from out of town tomorrow, because their brother is actually pretty much on his deathbed ... so it's kind of imperative for her to get back ASAP," she said.
Passengers say they received emails stating a work stoppage might prompt a change in itinerary that "may" entitle them to compensation. "If required, you will be provided with alternate travel arrangements," although none were proactively offered, Somani said.
As of Thursday evening, 29 flights or eight per cent of those scheduled on Friday have been cancelled. Passengers are now unable to make online bookings for WestJet trips on major routes such as Calgary-Vancouver and Toronto-Calgary until Tuesday.
The airline said it will continue to operate its regional services including its fleet of 47 planes at WestJet Encore and WestJet Link, which connects its Calgary hub with smaller cities in British Columbia and Alberta. Regional pilots are not involved in the current bargaining.
The fallout could be "extremely damaging to the WestJet brand" and finances, as well as to pilots' careers, said Duncan Dee, former chief operating officer at Air Canada.
In 1998, a 13-day pilot strike at Air Canada grounded 650 flights and 60,000 passengers daily, costing the company $133 million.
"You can either come out a hero or a zero. And in this particular case, both WestJet management and their unions are at a very great risk of coming out as zeros — and the heroes could very well be the other airlines that are going to pick up the slack," Dee said in a phone interview.
Some rival carriers sought to seize on the customer uncertainty and discontent this week.
Porter Airlines, which recently launched a cross-country expansion, unveiled Thursday it will match passengers' WestJet rewards status "with one of our VIPorter Avid Traveller levels." Swoop competitor Flair Airlines announced it had added flights to its Vancouver-Calgary and Vancouver-Edmonton routes, cheekily encouraging travellers on its homepage, "don't strike out your long weekend."
WestJet and Swoop operate 130 narrow-body 737s and seven wide-body 787 Dreamliners — most of which need to be parked in the event of a strike — according to Transport Canada’s civil aircraft registry.
With more than 4,000 flights originally scheduled over the next seven days, the airline carries 28 per cent of Canada's domestic market, while Air Canada runs 47 per cent, according to aviation data firm Cirium.
Inside WestJet's turquoise-glassed headquarters at the Calgary airport, it was "all hands on deck" until past 1 a.m. MT Thursday morning as staff scrambled to rejig flight schedules, plan customer service and support the bargaining team in Toronto, said airline spokeswoman Madison Kruger.
The federal government's head mediator as well as WestJet's CEO and the pilots' union leaders have descended on a hotel near the Toronto airport to work toward a deal, with Labour Minister Seamus O'Regan "close by," said von Hoensbroech. The CEO said he's been in "very regular contact with my boss" — Gerry Schwartz, chairman of Onex Corp., which acquired WestJet in December 2019.
Bernard Lewall, who heads the union's WestJet contingent, says the workers' issues revolve around pay, job security and scheduling, with pilots earning roughly half of what some of their U.S. counterparts make.
Rob Simms, the union's Toronto strike centre co-chair, said workers "will be picketing" Onex on Friday morning.
"It's very clear that this ownership group is not listening," said fellow pilot Chris Tholl on a podcast posted to the Twitter account of the union's WestJet contingent on Thursday afternoon.
"Tomorrow we will make them listen," said Tholl.
The airline has advised travellers to check the status of their flight before leaving for the airport, and to visit WestJet's guest updates webpage or Swoop's website for more information on flight status and travel changes.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 18, 2023.
Christopher Reynolds, The Canadian Press
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version had the wrong time zone for the strike start time.