For the first time in many years, it looks like pilots at a major North American airline will be going on strike (which is different than the recent strike authorization votes we’ve seen at virtually all major US airlines).
WestJet pilots are about to go on strike
We’v’e seen pilots at many airlines negotiating new contracts in recent months, given that travel demand is once again up significantly after the pandemic, and there’s a pilot shortage. The negotiations are especially tense at Calgary-based WestJet.
WestJet and its pilots have been negotiating a new contract for quite some time, but can’t seem to come to an agreement. As a result, the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), which represents roughly 1,800 WestJet pilots, has issued a legal notice that pilots will be going on a 72-hour strike starting at 5AM ET on Friday, May 19, 2023.
While it’s always possible that some last minute negotiations could take place, WestJet is more or less preparing to shut down for the long weekend. The airline is making it a priority to bring all planes and crews back to their bases, so we’re already seeing flights being canceled on Thursday, to minimize the chaos. A vast majority of mainline flights are expected to be canceled over the 72-hour period, unless there’s last minute progress with negotiations.
Here’s how WestJet CEO Alexis von Hoensbroech describes the situation:
“We are extremely disheartened to find ourselves in a place where we have to activate our contingency plan and subsequent takedown of our network as a result of the strike notice served by ALPA and their inability to accept a reasonable offer. We deeply regret the disruption this will have on the travel plans of our guests and the communities and businesses that rely on our critical air service. We remain at a critical impasse with the union and have been left with no choice but to begin taking the painful steps of preparing for the reality of a work stoppage.”
“We remain at the bargaining table, unequivocally committed to achieving a deal as soon as possible, but are equally ready to weather labour action for as long as it takes to arrive at a reasonable outcome. Any guest impact is too high of a cost in the wake of these negotiations and we sincerely apologize that valued guests were caught in the middle of an avoidable conflict.”
What are WestJet pilots asking for?
Why is there such a substantial gap between what WestJet management is offering and what pilots are willing to accept? It depends which party you ask.
If you ask WestJet management, the company claims it has made a very reasonable and generous offer to pilots at the airline. The company states that its latest offer could have raised salaries to around $300,000 for narrow body captains and around $350,000 for wide body captains (in CAD), before overtime and other allowances. This would have made WestJet narrow body pilots the highest paid in Canada, for these kinds of aircraft.
The union claims that those numbers do not represent what most WestJet pilots would earn, and that there’s a wide range of salaries for those with lower seniority, etc. The union’s main issue seems to be that pilots are working at a “steep discount” compared to what pilots in the United States are being paid. The union claims that pilots at WestJet are making 45% of the average pay in the United States.
Essentially WestJet pilots want their pay to be modeled after what pilots at US airlines make. Delta pilots recently negotiated an industry-leading contract, America’s CEO has promised a new contract that could see pilots earning up to $590,000 per year (USD), and United pilots say they want a better contract than what Delta has negotiated.
WestJet management of course points out that it would be difficult to match US market pay rates, given the currency exchange between the countries, as well as the different economics. This gap has existed for decades.
WestJet pilots are preparing to go on a 72-hour strike, and the airline is in the process of canceling most flights between Friday and Sunday. If this strike happens, it will be the first one we’ve seen from pilots in North America in many years.
It seems that WestJet has offered pilots significant pay increases, but pilots are hoping to narrow the gap between pilot pay in Canada and the United States, given the current pilot shortage. I imagine this could be a nasty battle, since those expectations are fundamentally different from what the company is willing to offer.
What do you make of the upcoming WestJet pilot strike?