Regina, Saskatoon airports prepare for looming WestJet pilot strike

WestJet pilots are expected to hit the picket line starting Friday, as months-long negotiations between the airline and the pilots' union have reached an impasse. (Albert Couillard/CBC - image credit)
WestJet pilots are expected to hit the picket line starting Friday, as months-long negotiations between the airline and the pilots' union have reached an impasse. (Albert Couillard/CBC - image credit)

Saskatchewan's two major airports are bracing for a looming pilot strike and the consequences it could have on travellers.

The Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), which represents WestJet and Swoop pilots, notified both airlines earlier this week that about 1,800 pilots may strike as early as 3 a.m. CST Friday. Swoop doesn't operate in Saskatchewan, so only WestJet travellers could be impacted in the province.

"We were looking forward to a really strong travel season and this could, potentially, impact it," said Justin Reeves, spokesperson for the Regina Airport Authority. "Whether it goes through or not, the uncertainty of it makes it very difficult.

"We really feel for all the passengers right now who are dealing with the uncertainty of what's going to happen."

The strike comes after months of negotiations. There has been progress on "non-cost items," but both parties are far apart on salaries, job security and work schedules, according to a news release issued by the union.

Those labour issues have led to frequent turnover, the release says.

WestJet declined to comment on the strike and the negotiations, instead referring CBC News to a section of the company's website that provides updates about the situation.

The airline issued a statement Monday, however, saying that it has offered a "generous contract" that would make its first officers and captains the highest-paid narrow-body aircraft pilots in the country. It also made "generous advancements" toward job security and "scope," it said.

The union, according to WestJet's statement, wouldn't budge on pilots earning wages similar to those paid to pilots in the United States.

It's an odd sticking point, said John Gradek, a lecturer and coordinator of McGill University's aviation management program.

ALPA represents pilots from several dozen airlines, including Canada-based Air Transat. The union recently negotiated a deal that saw pilots receive a three-per cent wage increase that came into effect this month.

Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press
Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

The increase keeps Air Transat pilots' wages within the ballpark of other Canadian pilots, Gradek said. Yet, the same union is negotiating for different salaries for a different set of Canadian pilots.

"That's not normal," he said.

WestJet and Swoop have prepared to run on a reduced schedule as a result of the potential strike, the WestJet statement says. Both are working to get ahead of flight changes and cancellations, and provide flexible options to customers.

As of noon CST Thursday, WestJet has started taking down its network, according to its website. Six flights were cancelled Wednesday and 98 were cancelled Thursday.

It is parking most of its 737 and 787 Boeing planes, but "limited" 737 flights will continue. WestJet Encore and Link flights will also take off, according to a news release issued Thursday.

The airlines are advising travellers to check the status of their flights and visit their respective websites for more information about flight status and travel changes.

The strike will affect Saskatchewan travellers, Gradek said, but its impact is compounded by recent changes in service from Air Canada and WestJet — the province's two dominant airlines.

Earlier this year, Air Canada suspended direct flights between Calgary and the Regina and Saskatoon airports — among other smaller Western Canadian airports — to help recover from losses during the COVID-19 pandemic. Similarly, WestJet cut much of its service in Atlantic Canada, Ontario and Quebec.

"It's very impactful to our guests," said CJ Dushinski, the Saskatoon Airport Authority's vice president of business development and service quality. "We're already struggling with trying to secure enough capacity to manage demand, so this [strike] certainly isn't going to help things.

"We're very disappointed that it's come to this, and we're just going to try to do our best … to keep things operating as smoothly as we possibly can."

The Regina and Saskatoon airport authorities have each been in touch with WestJet, according to Dushinski and Reeves. The airports are not in control of the flights, but are prepared to make travellers' time in their respective airports as comfortable as possible.

The airport authorities are also working to attract other airlines, such as Flair, to help increase capacity, they said.

Reeves has spoken with nine different airlines in the past two months, trying to attract them to the Regina International Airport, he said. But many are still recovering from pandemic losses and can't expand — yet.

The Saskatchewan government has stressed to the federal government and WestJet the need for which both parties need to continue bargaining, Premier Scott Moe told reporters Thursday.

"We always ask all sides, 'Get back to the bargaining table. Don't have the interruption of service," Moe said, adding that the best deals are seldom made on the picket line.