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WestJet starts to cancel flights as pilot strike looms, negotiations in stalemate

WestJet has started to cancel flights as talks with the pilots’ union remained at a “critical impasse,” the company said Thursday, jeopardizing travel plans for thousands of passengers ahead of the May long weekend.
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WestJet has started to cancel flights as talks with the pilots’ union remained at a “critical impasse,” the company said Thursday, jeopardizing travel plans for thousands of passengers ahead of the May long weekend.

Some 1,800 pilots at the carrier and its Swoop subsidiary are poised to walk off the job as of 3 a.m. MT after the Air Line Pilots Association issued a strike notice Monday.

WestJet issued a statement early Thursday saying negotiations with the union were stuck “in a stalemate.”

“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,” CEO Alexis von Hoensbroech said in a release.

The Calgary-based company has begun to park the bulk of its fleet — 105 narrow-body 737s and seven wide-body 787 Dreamliners — using a “measured, phased and safe approach,” the statement read.

The airline said its two regional services — WestJet Encore and WestJet Link, which connect its Calgary hub with smaller cities in British Columbia and Alberta — as well as some 737 flights will continue to operate.

With more than 4,000 flights scheduled over the next seven days, WestJet carries 28 per cent of Canada’s domestic market, while Air Canada runs 47 per cent, according to Cirium.

As of Thursday morning, the carrier had cancelled 92 flights or 17 per cent for that day, the aviation data firm’s figures show. Few flight cancellations had registered for Friday and afterward. But passengers are now unable to make online bookings for flights on major routes such as Calgary-Vancouver and Toronto-Calgary until Tuesday.

WestJet’s online daily flight status tracker showed 32 of its 162 listed departures out of its Calgary hub had been cancelled, while 20 of the airline’s 50 flights out of Toronto’s Pearson airport had also been scrapped.

The federal labour minister and the government’s head mediator as well as WestJet’s CEO and the pilots’ union leaders have all descended on a hotel near the Toronto airport to work toward a deal.

Bernard Lewall, who heads the union’s WestJet contingent, says the workers’ issues revolve around pay, job security and scheduling, with pilots earning roughly half of what some of their U.S. counterparts make. The company said Thursday the union’s wage expectations were “unreasonable” and would “permanently damage the financial viability of the group’s future.”

The airline has advised travellers to check the status of their flight before leaving for the airport, and to visit WestJet’s guest updates webpage or Swoop’s website for more information on flight status and travel changes.