A WestJet B-787 takes off during a beautiful sunset. Photo courtesy of WestJet Airlines
With hopes that the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic were behind them, WestJet Airlines pilots shifted their focus in 2022 toward building unity within the group, knowing they’d be entering contract negotiations later in the year.
In March, WestJet Group announced to the pilot group that it had entered into an agreement, subject to regulatory approvals, to acquire Sunwing Vacations and Sunwing Airlines.
At the time of the announcement, Capt. Dave Kingston, then the pilots’ Master Executive Council (MEC) chair, observed, “We know that opportunity for the carrier must translate into opportunity for the pilots in order for successful outcomes to be reached. We look forward to ensuring that the pilots’ priorities are linked to the future success this acquisition represents and that any possible adverse effects on the pilot group will be properly mitigated.”
While no structural changes in airline operations could occur prior to regulatory approval of the acquisition, MEC leaders immediately recognized the importance of engaging with all parties in order to be well positioned and unified to address any challenges and opportunities on the horizon.
WestJet, WestJet Encore, and Sunwing pilot representatives held a series of meetings to exchange valuable information on the working relationships with their respective managements and discuss proactive steps to prevent their employers from dividing the group throughout, or following, the purchase process.
In addition to preparing for the Sunwing deal, management announced in June that it was shifting its business focus toward western Canada with more routes and connections, resulting in the reduction of some routes in eastern Canada.
The announcement left the pilot group with numerous questions and concerns regarding the path the airline was poised to take and how the pilots and their careers would be affected.
By the end of June, the MEC began discussions with senior management, with both sides presenting an overview of their concerns and objectives regarding the acquisition.
Management outlined the significant financial challenges the company had endured during the pandemic, including increased operational costs, along with a plan to simplify operations and reduce expenditures.
Management stated that in the current challenging labour environment of recruiting and retaining pilots, it was necessary to balance paying market wages with cost reductions obtained through productivity gains garnered from throughout the organization.
The pilots responded strongly, reiterating their long-standing frustrations with a collective agreement imposed on the group by an arbitrator in 2018 that left them feeling undervalued, both economically and professionally.
As these initial talks with management were seen as a precursor to contract negotiations, in September the pilots issued an official notice to bargain for their second collective agreement.
“The pilot group’s Negotiating Committee expects management to recognize the pilots’ professionalism and contributions to the success of the airline,” Kingston said. “We’ve done our part to help the airline remain competitive and expect a new contract that will help attract and retain experienced, qualified pilots who’ll look at WestJet as a career destination.”
With the year coming to a close, and negotiations still in the early stages, members of the MEC felt that a new approach was required to achieve the best possible collective agreement. As a result, Kingston stepped down and Capt. Bernard Lewall was appointed the new MEC chair.
Upon first addressing the pilots, Lewall thanked Kingston for his efforts on behalf of the pilot group. He then turned the discussion to the pilots’ collective bargaining, stating, “Looking ahead to 2023, it’s important that we remain steadfast and focused on our goals of addressing our woefully inadequate pay, ensuring that all jets are flown by WestJet pilots at WestJet wages, and obtaining significant improvements to scheduling, benefits, and our work-life balance. We’ve earned an agreement the reflects our contributions to the success of our airline.”