WestJet offers cancellation, flight-change waiver as pilot strike, lockout looms

WestJet offers cancellation, flight-change waiver as pilot strike, lockout looms

WestJet is offering its customers refunds if they choose to cancel their scheduled flights through the weekend, when the company's pilot union is set to go on strike or get locked out.

In a statement Tuesday, the Calgary-based airline said it's offering passengers a one-time fee waiver for cancellations or changes for flights through Sunday, noting a change in destination could result in additional charges.

WestJet's waiver offer comes hours after the pilots' union issued a strike notice. The airline responded saying it would lock out the pilots, starting as early as 3 a.m. Friday.

Roughly 1,850 pilots with the union are posed to strike ahead of the May long weekend. WestJet is preparing to operate at a significantly reduced schedule, which will also affect Swoop flights.

Justin Pennell/CBC
Justin Pennell/CBC

Before Tuesday's waiver announcement, some WestJet passengers had already shelled out hundreds of dollars on alternative flights. 

Jason Duggan, who flew WestJet into Calgary from Ottawa with his daughter on Tuesday, spent about $700 on backup flights from two different airlines.

"I decided to swallow the extra cost," he said. "If all of a sudden they announce they're going to go on strike, what's going to happen with all these flights? They're just going to get snapped up like that, and I didn't want to be in a situation where I was completely stuck."

John Sedor, who had a WestJet ticket for a flight Wednesday to Winnipeg and another one next week to Edmonton, also opted to secure other travel arrangements. He switched to Air Canada.

"Anything can happen, so I'm being proactive, just in case," he said.

John Gradek, an airline analyst at McGill University, said that while the pilots have served a strike notice and WestJet is poised to lock them out, there's still time to reach a settlement.

"They're going to be still talking right up to that 3 a.m. Friday deadline," he said.

WATCH | WestJet pilot dispute could ground long weekend travellers: 

Negotiations between WestJet and the pilots' union have been ongoing since September. The pilots voted in favour of a strike last month. 

The Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), which also represents Swoop pilots, says it's seeking better pay, job security and more flexible schedules.

WestJet CEO Alexis von Hoensbroech said on Twitter that he has personally joined the bargaining table in an effort to reach an agreement. In a statement Monday, he said the company's current offer would make the WestJet pilots "by far the best paid in Canada."

Captain Jason Roberts, with the pilots' union, said in a Calgary Eyeopener interview Tuesday that the distance between the company and the pilots isn't just about money.

"It's a pilot attraction and retention issue," he said. "We know what the market conditions are, the demand for pilots in the industry right now, and unfortunately we see what the company is offering … is not going to stop the outflow of pilots from WestJet."