WestJet pilots overwhelmingly voted for a strike this week but vowed to remain on the job through the upcoming Victoria Day holiday weekend.
According to the WestJet chapter of the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), 91 percent of pilots at the carrier approved a strike that could start as early as midnight, May 18.
The union can launch a strike or the airline can lock out employees starting May 19, according to labor rules. Despite this tense stage of the negotiations, the pilots union leader sent a letter to management vowing to not strike over the Victoria Day federal holiday weekend, this year to be celebrated May 19-21.
"We acknowledge the outcome of this vote and recognize the mandate WestJet pilots have given ALPA," said Ed Sims, WestJet president and CEO, in a statement. "We are certain our guests will appreciate that this update confirms their travel will be unaffected over the Victoria Day long weekend."
The pilots and management have been negotiating since last fall over what would be the first pilot union contract at WestJet, but remain far enough apart that ALPA leaders authorized the strike vote to send a message to WestJet management. Management and union leaders are scheduled to reconvene negotiations next week in Halifax.
"WestJet pilots are ready to stand up for the fair contract we deserve — one that puts us in line with our peers across the industry," said Rob McFadyen, chair of the WestJet ALPA master executive council, in a statement.
He called for an agreement on “industry-standard compensation and working conditions, and real job security that prevents management from outsourcing our jobs."
According to press reports, the two sides are still apart on major issues, including whether to include in the contract pilots for WestJet's new discount airline Swoop, which begins flying June 20. The ultra low-cost carrier is looking to hire pilots from outside of Canada, because WestJet management maintains that Swoop must have low operating costs to be competitive with other discount carriers.
WestJet, which operates more than 740 flights a day that carry about 70,000 passengers, is working on contingency plans, though those plans have not been disclosed.
In comments to the press earlier this week, Sims told journalists that WestJet advance ticket sales indicated the carrier’s customers had “a degree of anxiety” from the labor dispute. Air Canada has taken advantage of the situation by issuing press releases noting it is adding capacity in anticipation of a potential strike.
“In response to the strike vote mandate given by WestJet's pilots, Air Canada today announced it has now added capacity on key transcontinental routes by up-gauging aircraft on certain flights from its primary global hub in Toronto to Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Montreal, Ottawa, Halifax, from Vancouver to Calgary, Edmonton, and from Calgary to Montreal,” the carrier said in a statement.
“Travelers who may be concerned about the uncertainty resulting from WestJet's strike vote mandate can book Air Canada with confidence.”