What a possible WestJet strike could mean for travelers
More than 1,000 WestJet pilots across Canada are preparing to picket this month as a union claims workers have been overworked and underpaid, while the airline argues they are being paid fairly.
The potential strike is making thousands of travelers nervous after a year of delays and flight cancellations by several Canadian airlines, including WestJet.
Complaints to the Canadian Transportation Agency have skyrocketed recently, with more than 42,000 filed last year, nearly 2,000 of which involved WestJet in December alone. Many of the complaints came after passengers were denied compensation for canceled flights due to a major snowstorm.
With strikes looming, the president of non-profit air passenger rights organization Gabor Lukacs says the need for improved regulations to protect passengers has increased. He says a labor dispute should be viewed as a situation under the airline’s control, raising questions about the impact of the strike and whether passengers will be compensated in the event of cancellations and delays.
“Ultimately, that’s really worrying. It’s a wake-up call to Canadians that our passenger protection system is inadequate,” Lukacs said in a phone interview with CTVNews.ca on Tuesday.
WHY ARE WESTJET PILOTS THREATENING A STRIKE?
On Monday, WestJet’s pilots’ union, the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), said in a press release that employees in Calgary, Vancouver and Toronto are demanding a pay rise, noting the airline’s high turnover rate.
The union says WestJet is losing an average of 30 pilots a month and that one pilot is looking for another job every 18 hours.
“It is well known that WestJet currently has a problem with pilot attraction and retention. Those of us who are here today are fighting to change that,” said ALPA President Capt. Jason Ambrosi in a press release. “Our goal is to secure a deal that will help make this airline a career destination for pilots again.”
WestJet ALPA CEO Captain Bernard Lewall recently told the CTV News Channel that WestJet pilots are among the “lowest-paid in North America, if not the world.”
For its part, WestJet released a statement Monday, saying the company “recognizes the importance of our pilots while safeguarding WestJet’s financial future and avoiding unnecessary disruption to Canadian travelers and communities.”
Additionally, the airline says its 737 pilots are among “the best Canadian earners in any occupation,” and the wages ALPA is proposing could impact the airline’s ability to offer Canadians “affordable” air travel.
ARE AIRLINE PILOTS ALLOWED TO STRIKE, WHEN WOULD IT START?
WestJet pilots may go on strike as early as May 16, according to ALPA, as the union says pilots are ready to file a 72-hour strike notice on May 13 if negotiations continue to falter.
While it can be an inconvenience for passengers, Lukacs says the 1,800 pilots under the union are within their constitutional right to strike if they feel it is necessary.
“They have every legal right to strike and I personally support the pilots in their strike,” he said.
IF MY FLIGHT IS CANCELED, WILL I RECEIVE COMPENSATION?
Tom Oommen, director general of communications at the Canadian Transportation Agency, says travelers have the right to be rebooked on another flight within 48 hours, regardless of the airline, if their flight is canceled for reasons beyond the control of the airline airline lie.
“If a flight disruption is beyond the airline’s control and the airline cannot rebook a passenger within 48 hours of the original flight departure time, the airline must offer the passenger a refund and that refund must be paid to the passenger within 30 days,” said Oommen in a phone interview with CTVNews.ca on Tuesday.
While this rule was recently introduced into the CTA’s Air Passenger Protection Rules in September 2022, Lukacs says the APPR rules are not comparable to other air passenger protection schemes like those in Europe, where travelers are entitled to additional compensation or reimbursement of costs such as meals and hotel accommodation in the event of a strike .
The CTA describes staffing issues as considered within an airline’s control, suggesting that a passenger may be entitled to some compensation depending on when a flight is cancelled.
However, it specifically lists “a work stoppage within the airline or within an essential service provider such as an airport or an air navigation service provider” as being beyond its control, suggesting that passengers would not be compensated.
And if passengers qualify, they’re limited to providing assistance, offering alternative travel arrangements or refunds, and up to $1,000 for inconvenience.
“In Canada, you don’t get meals, you don’t get lodging, you don’t get a lump sum,” Lukacs said, although he believed this strike would be under the airline’s control.
Oommen advises travelers to keep up to date with the latest developments on the strike and keep an eye on the impact on their trip should they wish to make a complaint.
“If ever a passenger wishes to lodge a complaint with the agency, that complaint is based on the specific facts of the case and it’s important to take good notes,” Oommen said.
WHAT COULD THIS MEAN FOR WESTJET?
Recently, Transport Secretary Omar Alghabra proposed legislation that would increase penalties and put airlines on the job of proving why they shouldn’t pay travelers compensation for disruptions beyond their control.
However, both the Air Passenger Rights Organization and the Public Interest Advocacy Center (PIAC) say the proposed change would only create more loopholes for airlines and would not help protect passenger rights.
“They create a big loophole that allows airlines to avoid compensation just by signing compliance agreements,” Lukacs said.
Both advocacy groups are urging Canadians to support Law C-327, which seeks to increase financial compensation for passengers who experience delays, canceled flights or denied boarding not caused by “extraordinary circumstances”.
Lukacs said in the case of canceled flights followed by a strike, it would not be a surprise if WestJet were hit with a class action lawsuit if they refuse to compensate travelers.
“They could refuse to pay until ordered to pay or forced to pay, but will they get away with it? I strongly doubt it. It could even be grounds for a class action lawsuit, and I would expect that if there is enough ground to crack down on WestJet,” he said.