WestJet avoids strike. Will flights restart in time for the long weekend?

WestJet avoids strike. Will flights restart in time for the long weekend?

WestJet is scrambling to restart more than 200 cancelled flights Friday after avoiding a pilots’ strike that threatened to upend Canadians’ Victoria Day long weekend travel plans.

The Calgary-based airline and the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) announced a tentative agreement to avoid the job action early Friday. Some 1,800 pilots at WestJet and Swoop had been poised to walk off the job Friday morning after the ALPA served a strike notice Monday.

In anticipation of a work stoppage, WestJet grounded more than 200 flights Thursday and Friday to avoid “abandoning aircraft in remote locations without support.” The process of getting those flights back online started after the tentative agreement was reached, WestJet said.

“The WestJet Group is ramping up its operations as quickly and efficiently as possible, however the full resumption of operations will take time,” the airline said in a statement.

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“Guests remain encouraged to continue to check the status of their flights before heading to the airport.”

Click to play video: 'Flight cancellations ahead of WestJet strike begins cascade of travel chaos'

Flight cancellations ahead of WestJet strike begins cascade of travel chaos

WestJet’s cancellations affected dozens of routes within Canada and to the U.S. and overseas, while flights at the WestJet Encore regional service and the WestJet-owned Sunwing Airlines were unaffected.

The airline cancelled 111 flights on Thursday and 107 on Friday, according to tracking service FlightAware. Those figures represented 30 per cent of WestJet flights scheduled each day.

Duncan Dee, a former chief operating officer at Air Canada, told Motorcycle accident toronto today it will likely be until mid-next-week before WestJet is back operating at 100 per cent capacity.

“What’s happened over the last few days, you should look at it in terms of a giant jigsaw puzzle, which was already well put together and then WestJet comes in and they have to take each and every piece of that jigsaw puzzle apart,” he said.

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“They now have a bunch of pieces that don’t fit together that they have to reassemble, so they’ve got to get that jigsaw puzzle back together. It’s going to take some time to do that.”

Click to play video: 'More than 100 flights affected at Calgary airport as WestJet prepares for strike'

More than 100 flights affected at Calgary airport as WestJet prepares for strike

Flights that were cancelled impacted multiple destinations and routes, he explained. For example, a flight from Calgary to San Francisco that is cancelled means that a second corresponding flight from San Francisco to Calgary flight is now also cancelled.

Dee commended WestJet, saying that if the airline didn’t act proactively, it could have faced a larger disruption, similar to what happened to Southwest Airlines in December.

The U.S.-based carrier cancelled nearly 17,000 flights in a 10-day stretch around Christmas, wrecking holiday travel plans for more than two million people due to a winter storm that shut down its operations in Denver and Chicago. The airline’s system for rescheduling pilots and flight attendants was also overwhelmed.

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“Any operator within an airline would rather do a controlled descent, a controlled cancellation of flights where they could ensure they knew where their crews and aircraft are, as opposed to what happened with Southwest … which resulted in aircraft and crew which were scattered throughout a country,” he said.

“In terms of WestJet, I anticipate it’s going to take them much less time than that because they were only shutting down about a third of their network.”

Click to play video: 'WestJet passengers say airline needs to step up with compensation after flights cancelled'

WestJet passengers say airline needs to step up with compensation after flights cancelled

Martin Firestone, president of Travel Secure Inc., told Motorcycle accident toronto today it’s now up to WestJet to make their impacted customers whole again.

He said WestJet’s reputation “has been tarnished,” but not anywhere near as bad had a strike taken place.

“Their job now is to get everybody reimbursed. … My advice to travellers is keep all receipts, everything you incurred for the ones who were out of the country yesterday and were affected by today. The ones who didn’t go at all probably have costs also because they didn’t get to the points of destination,” he said.

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“What this teaches us is just one day of disruption has blossomed into a huge amount of expenses and costs, and whether WestJet takes responsibility for it — that it was within their control or it was not within their control — is going to be key here at this point.”

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Deal to face union vote in near future

A membership vote on the agreement will begin in the coming days, WestJet and the union said.

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“After months of tough negotiations with management, we are pleased to announce an agreement-in-principle that goes a long way to recognizing the value and expertise we bring to our airline every day,” said Capt. Bernard Lewall, chair of the WestJet ALPA master executive council.

The union has said WestJet pilots have fallen behind their North American counterparts in recent years with regard to critical contract provisions, including job protections, career advancement, pay and scheduling flexibility.

ALPA and WestJet both said they believe the contract provides better job security, enhanced compensation and more flexible schedules to allow for a better work/life balance.

“When I started at WestJet 18 years ago, it was seen as a career destination,” Lewall said in a statement.

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“For the past several years, we have unfortunately been nothing more than a training ground for pilots looking to leave for better opportunities.”

Throughout negotiations, the union said WestJet management repeatedly spoke to its growth strategy.

“If ratified, the pilots will send a strong message that they remain committed to being a major contributor to WestJet’s success and help the company recognize its growth strategy,” the union said.

— with files from Motorcycle accident toronto today’ Karen Bartko and The Canadian Press

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