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WestJet, pilots reach 11th-hour deal as strike averted

Some 1,800 pilots at WestJet and Swoop had been poised to walk off the job
WestJet has started to cancel flights as talks with the pilots’ union remained at a “critical impasse,” the company said in Calgary, Alta., Thursday, May 18, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

The WestJet Group averted a strike after reaching a last-minute deal with the airline’s pilots early Friday, but not before cancelling more than a hundred 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 agreement to avoid the job action early Friday morning after eight months of negotiations, but not before the airline grounded the bulk of its fleet Thursday, including for its Swoop subsidiary, ahead of the strike deadline.

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.

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

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

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 several 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.”

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.”

READ MORE: WestJet cancels 100-plus flights as pilot strike looms, negotiations in stalemate