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WestJet pilots stand on a picket line at Toronto's Pearson Airport on Monday May 8, 2023.Chris Young/The Canadian Press

WestJet Airlines began cancelling flights and parking planes Thursday ahead of a possible pilot strike or lockout early on Friday morning.

Calgary-based WestJet said in a statement it was taking the measures to avoid stranding crew and passengers amid a “stalemate” in contract talks with its 1,850 pilots.

“The decision to cancel flights comes as the WestJet Group remains in a stalemate with the union regarding unreasonable wage expectations that if realized would permanently damage the financial viability of the group’s future,” the company said.

Explainer: How WestJet pilots’ strike notice could affect your travel plans

WestJet was to ground the majority of its Boeing 737 and 787 fleet. Its smaller WestJet Encore and Link flights will continue, because those pilots are under a different collective agreement.

Early on Thursday morning, WestJet cancellations for the day included 27 departing Calgary, 11 from Edmonton and four from Vancouver. Fifteen flights were cancelled at Toronto, according to the airports’ respective websites.

According to flight-tracking website FlightAware, WestJet cancelled 103 flights just after 9 a.m. ET on Thursday.

“The biggest challenge they’ve got is finding a place to park 100 planes,” Duncan Dee, a former Air Canada operating chief, said from New York.

As many as 18,000 WestJet customers had their flights cancelled as of Thursday morning, based on Mr. Dee’s rough estimate. WestJet flies 65,000 to 68,000 people a day, and 85 per cent of these would be affected, he said.

WestJet has about 168 aircraft and operates flights across Canada and into the United States and overseas. Western Canada will be most affected by any work stoppage or wave of cancellations, given that is the hearts of its operations.

Customers whose flights are cancelled are entitled to a refund or rebooking on another airline, according to the Canadian Transportation Agency. If the itinerary includes an international leg, travellers might be due compensation in the form of money, food or accommodation.

The Air Line Pilots Association is seeking better pay and working conditions for its members, who the union says are underpaid by about 40 per cent compared with the North American average.

WestJet, in a statement, called the wage demands “unreasonable” and said they would “permanently damage” the airline’s future.

The union says WestJet needs to pay pilots more to stop the attrition amid a shortage of crew members. The union says 240 pilots quit last year and another 100 left this year for jobs elsewhere, often in the United States.

The union has declined to say how much its members make but points to better pay in the United States, and says its pilots fly the same planes on many of the same routes.

According to the WestJet pilots’ collective agreement that expired at the end of December, a 737′s first officer makes $65 an hour to start. A captain with 12 years on the job is paid $222 an hour. On a larger 767 or 787, the most senior captain is paid $258 an hour.

Canadian regulations limit a pilot’s monthly flight time to about 77 hours a month.

John Gradek, who teaches aviation leadership at McGill University, said the drawn-out negotiations signal both sides are entrenched in their positions. He said the chance of a strike has risen with each day, and put the odds at about 60 per cent.

Meanwhile, Delta Airlines’ 15,000 pilots recently approved a new collective agreement that comes with a 34-per-cent raise over four years. A senior Delta 737 captain would make US$474,000 a year by the end of the four-year contract, including pension contributions. A captain on a larger plane would make US$590,000. American Airlines has assured its pilots they would get the same raise.

Air Canada is expected to begin contact talks with its 4,500 pilots in the summer. The pilots recently voted to merge their union with the same group that represents crews at WestJet, United Airlines and 38 other airlines.

WestJet is owned by Onex Corp. ONEX-T, which paid $3.5-billion for the airline in 2019, months before the pandemic threw the industry into turmoil.

The two sides were in talks near Toronto, assisted by a federal mediator. Federal Labour Minister Seamus O’Regan was also present.

Canada’s last major pilot strike was in 1998, when Air Canada’s AC-T 4,000 crew stopped work for 13 days. In 2012, the Conservative government suspended the right to strike of Air Canada’s pilots and baggage handlers. The law, which the government said was intended to prevent traveller disruption over the March break, also barred the airline from locking out its workers.

The current federal government said it believes the best solution to the WestJet labour dispute lies at the bargaining table. “There’s a lot of good will and collaboration, and a real sense of what’s at stake for travelling Canadians,” Mr. O’Regan said on Wednesday.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story contained incorrect information about pilot salaries.

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