WestJet Airlines and its pilots’ union staved off a strike at the start of the travel season with a tentative four-year deal that provides significant raises and better working conditions.
The contract, which must be ratified by WestJet and Swoop’s 1,800 pilots, makes them the highest-paid crews on narrow-body aircraft in Canada, and provides double-digit pay increases in the first year, said Tim Perry, Canadian president of the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA).
Mr. Perry declined to provide details because union members have yet to see the proposal. A ratification vote is expected in a few weeks.
The settlement, reached early Friday morning at a hotel near Toronto Pearson International Airport, includes an additional $400-million in pilot wages over the life of the deal, and the possibility of creating the first pension plan for members.
“It’s a big step forward for the members, and will, in our view, help with WestJet’s attraction and retention issues,” Mr. Perry said. “And it’s something that values the pilots and their expertise that they bring to the airline.”
North American pilots, airlines seek to strike new contracts ahead of peak travel season
Mr. Perry said union negotiators achieved their goal of ensuring WestJet pilots are paid in line with their counterparts throughout North America. “We’re not at the high end of the range, but we’re in the ballpark,” Mr. Perry said by phone.
Alexis von Hoensbroech, WestJet’s chief executive officer, said the agreement offers “meaningful improvements to job security and scope, working conditions and wages.”
Calgary-based WestJet cancelled 231 flights from Thursday to Sunday amid uncertainty over the state of negotiations, which have lasted nine months. The two sides issued strike and lockout notices for early Friday morning, and the cancellations were to reduce the number of passengers, crews and planes that would be stranded.
Geraint Harvey, a professor at Western University, said the labour turmoil has cost Canada’s second-largest airline fares as well as consumer trust. “These kind of actions are incredibly damaging for airlines,” Prof. Harvey said in an interview.
The often fractious labour talks at WestJet came as the Canadian aviation industry is trying to regain its footing more than three years after COVID-19 halted most air travel. Onex Corp. ONEX-T bought WestJet for $3.5-billion months before the pandemic swept the globe and caused deep financial losses for the airline industry.
John Gradek, a former Air Canada manager who teaches aviation leadership at McGill University, said the gains the pilots achieved will raise WestJet’s expenses and could lead to reduced services on some money-losing routes amid competition with discount rivals Flair Airlines and Lynx Air.
“This is not a cheap settlement. It’s going to cost [WestJet] millions. Are those millions going to be recoverable in the market? The answer is no. Those costs are going to have to be recovered somehow,” he said. “WestJet might have to take out its own services to pay for the bill for the pilots.”
Mr. Gradek said the union’s efforts to push for wages that are comparable with the airline’s North American and U.S. counterparts marked a “new paradigm” in aviation labour talks. The U.S. aviation industry, in sound financial health, has been awarding pay hikes at a time the Canadian focus on low fares has kept domestic wages down.
The new WestJet proposal changes that, he said. Air Canada, expected to begin contract talks with ALPA in the summer, could be next, he said. “We have seen a preview of what ALPA will do with Air Canada. That’s going to happen sooner than later,” Mr. Gradek said.