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Thousands affected after WestJet cancels flights in anticipation of mechanics strike

Thousands of WestJet customers are scrambling after the airline cancelled more than 30 flights ahead of a possible strike by its plane mechanics this Thursday.
A WestJet logo is seen in the domestic check-in area at Vancouver International Airport, in Richmond, B.C., on Friday, May 19, 2023. The WestJet Group has cancelled about 40 flights in anticipation of a possible strike by its aircraft maintenance workers on Thursday.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Thousands of WestJet customers are scrambling after the airline cancelled more than 30 flights ahead of a possible strike by its plane mechanics this Thursday.

In an update Wednesday afternoon, the airline said about 6,500 travellers were booked on the cancelled trips, scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday. WestJet said the move reduces the potential for stranded passengers and ensures the carrier can avoid abandoning aircraft in far-flung locations.

Some 670 WestJet mechanics, represented by the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association, are poised to walk off the job as early as Thursday evening after serving the airline with a strike notice Monday following nine months of negotiations.

The Calgary-based company has requested that the Canada Industrial Relations Board intervene with binding arbitration, which would see the labour tribunal hammer out a contract between the two sides — their first collective agreement. In the meantime, the board could bar a work stoppage, a measure WestJet is counting on as the cancellations rack up.

Union members voted overwhelmingly to reject a tentative deal last week and opposed the airline's request for arbitration this week.

Passenger protection regulations entitle customers to a full refund in the original form of payment for the cancelled trips, said Gabor Lukacs, president of the Air Passenger Rights advocacy group.

If the strike goes ahead and WestJet cannot rebook passengers within 48 hours of the original departure time, the carrier must "buy passengers seats on competitor airlines — at WestJet's expense," Lukacs said, citing the Air Passenger Protection Regulations.

For trips cancelled before the possible work stoppage, he argued that the carrier must rebook customers on competitors' flights if they cannot get them on board WestJet planes within nine hours of the slated departure. The airline would also be on the hook for meals and accommodations as well as compensation — distinct from a refund — of between $400 and $1,000, depending on the length of the delay.

"If I were an affected passenger, I would give WestJet one chance to rebook me on a competitor. I would record the call/interaction. If ignored or refused, I would buy a ticket on a competitor, and then make WestJet pay for all the expenses plus the standard (passenger rights) compensation," Lukacs said.

The airline said Wednesday it will make "every effort to reaccommodate disrupted guests."

As of Wednesday afternoon, the 31 cancellations comprised 18 for that day and 13 on Thursday. They touched cities ranging from Toronto and Vancouver to Regina and Grande Prairie, Alta.

Busy domestic routes such as Toronto-Calgary and popular leisure flights including Vancouver-Las Vegas saw cuts. But many more will be necessary if no move is made by the labour tribunal as the clock ticks down toward 7 p.m. MST on Thursday — the earliest possible strike hour.

The industrial relations board said it will be ready to "deal with these matters as expeditiously as possible."

A meeting between the parties was scheduled for Wednesday, "and the board will then determine next steps, as appropriate," spokesman Jean-Daniel Tardif said in an email.

WestJet president Diederik Pen said the airline was "immensely disheartened" to cancel trips and start parking planes after receiving the 72-hour strike notice.

"We know the situation is creating stress and uncertainty for anyone with upcoming travel plans. To our guests, the communities and businesses that rely on our service, we're truly sorry," he said in a videotaped statement Wednesday.

The contract rejected by union membership included provisions to boost take-home pay by 30 to 40 per cent in the first year, which would have made WestJet's plane mechanics the highest paid in the country, Pen claimed.

The union said Monday it opposes the airline's request for arbitration because the process could undermine aircraft maintenance engineers' (AMEs) bid for greater contract gains.

"If adopted by the Canada Industrial Relations Board, it would utterly frustrate the AMEs' goal of reaching an industry-changing contract because arbitrators are generally driven by industry 'norms' – the same norms that have kept AMEs under the heel of management and industrial unions which favour the unskilled majority," the negotiating committee claimed in a statement Monday.

Labour Minister Seamus O'Regan said federal mediators continue to work with both parties this week.

"Mediators are at it. So things are proceeding and we're supporting them at the table where the best deals are made," he told reporters Tuesday.

— With files from Mia Rabson in Ottawa

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 19, 2024.

Christopher Reynolds, The Canadian Press