WestJet pilots picket ahead of possible strike next week

The risk of travel chaos is starting to look like a sure thing as Canadians make plans to take the skies this Victoria Day long weekend.

On top of staff shortages, one of Canada’s major airlines is now on the edge of a labor dispute. More than 300 WestJet pilots stood outside Terminal 3 at Pearson International Airport this afternoon, with similar pickets happening in Calgary and Vancouver ahead of a possible strike next week.

Pilots say they are sick of poor treatment, poor pay and the high turnover rate of staff with WestJet.

“We are ready to take legal strike action – or be locked out at that point – but we are still hoping to reach a deal,” Capt. Chris Tholl, a WestJet pilot, told CTV National News.

Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), the union representing the striking workers, says pilots are leaving at an incredible rate, stating in a press release that WestJet is losing “over 30 per month,” which amounts to a pilot leaving the airline “every 18 hours in search of a better work opportunity.”

They say pilots are taking better paying jobs at other airlines, particularly in the US, in order to secure not only more money, but also job security and better scheduling.

“We are some of the lowest paid in North America, if not the world, and that has to change,” Capt. Bernard Lewall, WestJet ALPA Master Executive Council chair, told CTV National News.

In a statement to CTV News, WestJet said it is “committed to listening to our pilots’ concerns” while “achieving an agreement that is competitive within Canada’s airline industry.”

The labor unrest comes as airlines and airports try to bounce back after a year of turmoil travel, where long waits and lost luggage seem to be the rule, not the exception.

Pearson Airport, which ranks among the worst in the world for delayed flights in 2022, has hired 10,000 new employees ahead of the busy summer travel season.

“Almost 22 per cent more employees compared to last summer,” Deborah Flint, Greater Toronto Airports Authority (GTAA) President and CEO, said Monday at a press conference.

“The anxiety, the uncertainty, the frustration, and the lack of control that was felt by passengers last year is one that we will never forget. We want Torontonians, Ontarians, and Canadians, and travelers from around the world to know that this summer will be very different and better than summer 2022.”

Air Canada continues to operate at 90 per cent of its pre-pandemic schedule, but said in a statement it has “more people on staff than in summer 2019 and this should further help with resilience.”

WestJet says it plans to hire 2,000 more people this year.

But hiring industry experts warn may not be enough to stop us from seeing repeated last year’s travel delays, with so many variables from ambitious scheduling to a shortage of air traffic controllers adding to the factors that could lead to delays.

“It is going to be a turbulent summer,” John Gradek, a professor at McGill University, told CTV National News.

“It could be nasty, so much as Pearson and the airports want to make sure this doesn’t happen again, we don’t get a repeat, there might be some repeats.”

The first real test will come next week ahead of the busy Victoria Day long weekend, which could coincide with a West Jet pilots strike. The deadline for an agreement is set for next Tuesday.

“On May 13, the pilots are prepared to file a 72-hour strike notice and expect the possibility of being in a legal position to commence job action on May 16, should management continue to stall negotiations,” the ALPA statement reads.

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