WestJet CEO, pilots' union head clash over compensation as strike looms
MONTREAL — No sign of a breakthrough emerged in talks between WestJet and its pilots Wednesday, as the company's CEO deemed the union's expectations unrealistic while the Air Line Pilots Association slammed the airline for trying to 'publicly villainize' its workers.
WestJet CEO Alexis von Hoensbroech said late Tuesday the two sides remained far apart on key sticking points — especially wages — as bargaining heats up and the clock ticks down on a strike deadline.
"The gap is still massive," von Hoensbroech said from the bargaining venue, a hotel north of Toronto. Neither the company nor the union provided a concrete update Wednesday on the state of negotiations.
More than 1,800 pilots at WestJet and its Swoop subsidiary are poised to potentially walk off the job as of 3 a.m. EDT on Friday after the union issued a strike notice Monday night.
The standoff has left thousands of passengers with travel plans for the May long weekend and beyond hanging in limbo.
In recognition of that uncertainty, the airline is offering refunds to passengers who cancel flights scheduled until May 21, and fee-free changes to bookings within the same period.
The potential strike has already created a drop in bookings for the airline, which hasn't turned a profit since 2019, said von Hoensbroech.
"We have gone through three years of a pandemic that has left very deep scars," he said.
While the carrier is still recovering, its latest offer to the union would see wide-body plane captains earn $350,000 in total compensation annually by the end of the collective agreement term, according to a letter to flight crew from the company and obtained by The Canadian Press. Narrow-body captains would earn $300,000.
"Immediately upon the effective date, WestJet pilots would have had the highest narrow-body first officer and captain top-step wage rate in Canada," the Monday night letter states.
The union says the figures don't tell the full story.
“WestJet management’s decision to selectively manipulate and cherry-pick salary numbers is an exercise in creative accounting practices that in no way reflect the actual reality of compensation for its pilots," said Bernard Lewall, who heads the Air Line Pilot Association's WestJet contingent, in a statement.
"We encourage WestJet management to put their efforts into negotiating a contract, instead of trying to publicly villainize the very pilots who are fighting to be a part of the airline's future success and help the company recognize its own highly touted growth strategy."
The Air Canada Pilots Association said last week that flight crews are working at a "steep discount" compared to their U.S. counterparts, a concern that Lewall has echoed following a 34 per cent pay hike over four years secured in March by Delta Air Lines pilots.
Von Hoensbroech concurred, but said the union nonetheless harbours "extreme expectations."
"They realized that pilots in the U.S. earn double what pilots earn in Canada, and they want to have this as well. And I think it's pretty obvious to anyone that such an expectation of doubling wages is just not realistic."
Lewall has said pay, scheduling and job security remain the key areas of dispute — another point on which the CEO agrees.
Some 340 pilots have left the carrier over the past year and a half — mostly for other Canadian airlines, according to Lewall. But von Hoensbroech said WestJet's mainline fleet has hired three times the number of pilots who've 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.
In response to the strike notice, WestJet issued a lockout notice shortly before midnight Monday to maintain "control" over its planes, the CEO said. While job action can be limited and rotational, lockouts involve blanket application. Both could take effect Friday, but neither has to.
"If a strike hits us on short notice at a point where we don't expect it, we may strand an airplane somewhere in the Caribbean — in I don't know where," von Hoensbroech said. "Then we are in trouble."
The CEO as well as WestJet's chief operating officer and chief financial officer have all descended on a hotel near Toronto's Pearson airport to try to hash out a deal with the union.
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."
In the event of a delay or cancellation, customers will be "refunded or re-accommodated, as applicable," the airline said Monday.
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.
Swoop competitor Flair Airlines seized on the uncertainty over upcoming trips, adding flights to its Vancouver-Calgary and Vancouver-Edmonton routes and cheekily encouraging travellers on its homepage, "don't strike out your long weekend."
As negotiations ground on Wednesday, the Air Line Pilots Association approved a merger with the Air Canada Pilots Association's 4,500 members, bringing the country's two biggest flight crew labour groups under one roof.
The move means 95 per cent of professional Canadian pilots are represented by a single union, effective immediately, said Charlene Hudy, the Air Canada union's council chair, in a statement.
"With the collective strength of over 73,000 pilots in North America, we look forward to working toward a better future for the piloting profession and aviation industry as a whole."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 17, 2023.
Companies in this story: (TSX:AC)
Christopher Reynolds, The Canadian Press