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  • Writer's pictureMaria Kestane

'Give us a future’, WestJet pilots issue 72-hour strike notice over compensation, job security

Victoria Day travelers may not get the chance to fasten their seat belts this weekend if they booked their flight with WestJet Airlines.

Pilots from Air Line Pilot Association's WestJet contingent stand in solidarity with one another in front of Toronto Lester Pearson International Airport. Photo credit: ALPA / Instagram.

A fight over economic and job security could force WestJet pilots to go on strike by Friday, a representative of the pilots union told Humber News on Tuesday.

Pilots flying with the Calgary-based airline issued a 72-hour strike notice at 10:00 p.m. ET on Monday, warning both their passengers and employer alike of possible travel interruptions ahead of the May long weekend.

Air Lines Pilot Association (ALPA), the union representing WestJet pilots, said 93 per cent of its 1,600 members may take lawful job action early Friday morning if no deal with WestJet is reached before then.

Pilots are set to walk off the job at 5:00 a.m. ET on Friday.

Bernard Lewall, Chair of the WestJet ALPA Master Executive Council (MEC), said the union is bargaining for better pay, job security and improved scheduling.

He said while progress was made for most non-cost items, WestJet planes will remain on the ground if both sides of the table don’t reach an agreement that will serve the best interests of all parties involved.

“Without the economic and job security improvements our pilots require, WestJet will be parking planes, as they will not have enough pilots to operate them or accomplish its own growth strategy,” Lewall said in a statement put out by ALPA.

Lewall said some 240 pilots made the decision to leave their WestJet uniforms behind last year and work for the competitor, citing the poor retention as a result of non-competitive compensation.

For pilots like Capt. Jason Roberts, these negotiations give WestJet the chance to become a career destination for pilots across the country.

“The company has an opportunity to come to the table and negotiate a fair contract that will help retain and attract pilots,” he told Humber News.

“Really it’s up to them,” he said.

Roberts said he began his career with WestJet 10 years ago, a time where he thought it to be a ‘career destination’.

According to ALPA, 93 of the pilots who voted approved filing a strike if need. ALPA said 95 per cent of the pilots voted.

However, union statistics showing that about one pilot leaves WestJet every 18 hours to go work for the competitor doesn’t come as a surprise to him anymore.

“When it’s averaging over 30 pilots a month, we clearly need a fair contract. Something to retract and retain our pilots,” Roberts said.

“Give us a future, that’s what we need,” he said.

In response to the strike notice, WestJet Group on Monday issued a lockout notice, a decision the company said “wasn’t made lightly.”

WestJet pilots picketing on May 8, 2023, one week before filing the strike notice.

Alexis von Hoensbroech, CEO of WestJet, took to social media with a statement on the lockout in response to the strike announcement.

“Our offer would have made our valued WestJet pilots by far the best paid in Canada”, he tweeted. “We see no alternative than to lock them out as of Friday.”

Although Von Hoensbroech said WestJet’s offer would have ensured top pilot compensation across the country, pilot pay is more complex than securing ‘best pay’.

Wilfrid Laurier University professor in the School of Business and Economics, William G. Morrison said pilot compensation is a multi-faceted, time-dependent concept.

“Pilot wages are complicated because they comprise of different important elements,” he said in an email interview. “One is seniority, whereby the rates of pay for junior officers start quite low but rise steadily with years of employment.”

Morrison also cited that wage bargaining may pose a challenge, as pilots are demanding pay against U.S. pay scales.

“A difficult sticking point in negotiations is that the union’s position and demands are benchmarked against the pay scales of US airline pilots, while WestJet benchmarks its offer on a Canadian-based pilot scenario,” he said.

Morrison warned both WestJet and its passengers about what the upcoming days may look like if pilots do walk off the job.

“If the strike does happen then there could be significant disruptions and flight cancellations,” he said. “Travelers should prepare for that and make sure of their flights before heading to the airport.”

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