WestJet cancels hundreds of flights after surprise strike by mechanics union

WestJet cancels hundreds of flights after surprise strike by mechanics union
WestJet cancels hundreds of flights after surprise strike by mechanics union

Tens of thousands of Canadian airline passengers were in trouble Saturday after a sudden strike by union members at WestJet resulted in the cancellation of hundreds of flights on the country’s second-largest airline.

The Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association (AMFA) announced Friday that its members had to walk off the job around 5:30 PM MDT because the airline’s “unwillingness to negotiate with the union made the strike unavoidable.”

The move came after the federal government on Thursday issued a ministerial order for binding arbitration, following two weeks of turbulent talks with the union over a new deal.

WestJet executives told a news conference in Calgary that 235 flights had already been cancelled by Saturday afternoon, affecting some 33,000 passengers, with the possibility of another 150 cancelled flights by the end of the day if no resolution to the strike was found.

WestJet Airlines president Diederik Pen called the strike “devastating” for passengers and the airline.

“We are outraged and I want to assure you that we are doing everything we can to resolve this,” Pen said.

The airline’s CEO, Alexis von Hoensbroech, blamed the situation squarely on what he called a “rogue union from the US” trying to gain a foothold in Canada.

Von Hoensbroech said that as far as the airline was concerned, negotiations with the union had ended when the minister referred the dispute to binding arbitration.

“This makes a strike completely absurd, because the reason you’re actually doing a strike is so you have to put pressure on the bargaining table,” he said. “If there is no negotiating table, there is no point, there should be no strike.”

He added that the union had rejected a contract offer that would have made the airline’s mechanics the “highest paid in the country.”

Meanwhile, federal Labor Minister Seamus O’Regan also appeared to be struggling with the strike and its consequences.

He issued a brief statement Saturday morning saying he was reviewing the Canada Industrial Relations Board’s order and describing it as “clearly inconsistent” with the direction he provided. But later in the day, a new statement said he respects the authority of the board, which he noted is independent of the government. He planned to meet the two sides later Saturday, he added.

In an update to its 680 members, the union posted a letter from the board about its decision, which said the ministerial referral “does not have the effect of suspending the right to strike or lockout.”

The threat of a strike appeared to diminish on Thursday, but Friday’s surprising developments shocked travelers and executives alike.

At Toronto Pearson International Airport, WestJet passengers Samin Sahan and Samee Jan said they planned to leave Saturday with relatives for a trip to Calgary that had been planned for six to eight months.

Sahan said they had received emails earlier in the day saying their flight had been rescheduled for Monday, but they went to the terminal anyway.

“We came to the airport to talk to some agents and try to figure out if there’s a schedule that can align all of our family’s plans,” Sahan said. “Everyone is getting spread out and we have grandparents and grandchildren traveling with us, so it’s important that we all stay together while we’re traveling.”

He said their attempts to get clarification, coupled with the strike, had disrupted their travel plans.

“This inaction is hurting many people, both their own businesses and their customers, who will likely never be their customers again,” Sahan said.

Jan called the situation ‘sad’.

“I’m not that surprised because we’ve heard things about this strike, but… all this running around, it’s a bit sad.”

Sean McVeigh, a WestJet aircraft maintenance engineer who picketed at Pearson’s Terminal 3 on Saturday, said the strike is an attempt to force the airline to return to a “respectful negotiation.”

McVeigh said the union regrets any inconvenience to passengers.

“The reason they (passengers) may have missed a flight or had to cancel a flight is because WestJet is not respectfully coming to the table to negotiate,” he said, along with about 20 others on the picket line. “We take a lot of responsibility and we want to be financially valued,” he said.

Earlier this month, mechanics voted overwhelmingly to reject a tentative deal with the Calgary-based airline, prompting WestJet to seek government intervention.

Gabor Lukacs, president of the advocacy group Air Passenger Rights, said that as things stand, the union is participating in a legal strike.

“I believe the blame here lies with management and not the union,” Lukacs said in a telephone interview. “From a business management perspective, they (WestJet) did not handle the situation well and they need to face the consequences.”

He said WestJet is required by law to find alternative travel options for stranded passengers within 48 hours, either on another WestJet flight or a competitor.

People can also ask for a refund, though Lukacs says he advises against doing so.

“I would urge passengers not to get a refund unless they are absolutely certain they do not want to travel,” he said. “If you accept a refund, WestJet can wash away its obligations to you.”

Pen said WestJet would follow the rules and refund passengers, while offering hotel stays to those stranded. He further said the airline “could not provide additional compensation.”

This isn’t the first time labor unrest at WestJet has affected holiday weekend travel plans. The airline managed to avert a strike in the early hours of the May long weekend last year, but before more than 230 flights were canceled and thousands of people were forced to change their travel plans.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 29, 2024.

– with files from Christopher Reynolds in Montreal

Keith Doucette and Rianna Lim, The Canadian Press