More than 200 WestJet pilots gathered in front of the company’s Calgary headquarters on Friday to ask for a return to the negotiating table.
At issue, said representatives for WestJet’s Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), is job protection, quality of life improvements including better scheduling, and an increase to pay—with pilots saying they are being paid 50 per cent less than the North American average.
The association has authorized a strike vote, with voting to start next week on April 3 through to April 18. Job action, said the association, could begin as early as march.
“It’s been six months since we’ve started negotiations and and we’re very far apart at the table still,” said Captain Bernard Lewall, chair of the master executive council for the WestJet’s Air Line Pilots Association.
“We want to we want the company to know that we’re a unified public group and we’ve got the resolve and that they need to come to the bargaining table with us and negotiate in good faith.”
WestJet’s Chief Operating Officer Diederik Pen said that it was important to come to an agreement and that the airline was negotiating so that they could offer competitive fares and career prospects for all of their staff members.
“There are several items that we are discussing, and we’ll discuss those at the bargaining table, but it’s about pay, it’s about jobs for the future, and it’s about their rosters,” Pen said.
Pen said that the over 200 pilots picketing the WestJet HQ represented to the company was actually a positive thing.
“It’s actually very positive to stand up and show engagement. They’re involved and want to be part of WestJet, and we want them to be—by the fact that they’re here, and we are here, and we need to be both engaged and on track,” Pen said.
He said that the strike vote was a common occurrence in negotiations like these and that the company was still committed to talking to the association.
“Both parties are talking and negotiating almost every single day,” he said.
Same job responsibilities as in the US, said pilots
Some of the signs held up by the pilots included the messages of “you aren’t going anywhere without us,” “we are ready, show us a future,” and “frustrated with WestJet? So are we.”
In response to a question asked by LWC about pilots stating they feel undervalued, with wages 50 per cent below the North American average, Pen said that they were offering competitive wages for the Canadian market.
“I’d say that those types of things we should discuss at the table, we are willing to pay competitive Canadian rates, and that’s what we’ll do,” he said.
Capt. Lewall said that Canadian pilots are worth every bit as much as their American counterparts. He said that the association could not give specific values as to what was being negotiated for in terms of wages, but that the job was the same cross-border.
“A pilot in Canada, on WestJet flying a Boeing 737, it’s the exact same job as a United [Airlines] pilot flying a Boeing 737.”
According to pilot industry portal website, airlinepilotcentral.com, which aggregates data on pilot pay for North American airlines and cargo companies, WestJet Boeing 737 Captains make between $136 and $210 Canadian per hour, depending on the years of service with the airline. First Officers make between $56 and $128 per hour.
United Airlines Boeing 737 Captains make between $260 to $283 per hour in USD, with First Officers making between $91 and $193 per hour.
Capt. Lewall said that as a result of conditions at the airline, pilots are coming to WestJet to be trained, and then are leaving for other carriers to have a career.
“We keep losing pilots… we lost 240 pilots from the WestJet group of companies back in 2022, and this year that the numbers are actually accelerating. In February, we lost 42 pilots, and most of those just go on to other airlines,” Lewall said.
“WestJet used to be a career destination, and that’s changed over the last 10 years. Pilots now come to WestJet to get some training and then move on to a better airline.”
Pen said that WestJet is committed to doing a deal that is competitive within Canada.
Potential strike could affect summer travel
With the potential for a strike starting in May, Captain Tim Perry, President of ALPA International, said that no one wants to fly families to their destinations more than the WestJet pilots who would be striking.
“These are our jobs, and they need to respect our contribution to our companies,” Perry said.
“I think that any Canadian would understand that, but certainly we want nothing more than to go to work every day.”
Capt. Lewall said that passengers should be aware that a strike could last into the busy summer months, however.
“The last thing we want to do is inconvenience any passengers, and that’s not our goal here. But they should keep in mind that we may be out on strike just prior to the long weekend, and that may drag into the summer,” Lewall said.
Pen said that they remain committed to signing a competitive deal that would avoid any issues for their customers.
“We want to do a deal that is responsible for the future of the airline, and we want to do a deal that ensures that there’s stability for our crew, our company and also our guests,” he said.
“We remain committed and we believe that there’s a deal on the table ready to be had.”