WestJet Pilots
The B-737 MAX returns to service, making its first flight from Calgary, Alb., to Vancouver, B.C.

With a new decade under way, the WestJet pilots’ Master Executive Council (MEC) leaders shared their goals with the company in early 2020, chief among them collaborating on a suitable Employee Share Purchase Plan (ESPP) replacement plan given that the previous plan—based on WestJet publicly traded stock—ceased to exist when Onex Corporation purchased WestJet and took the carrier private. The MEC also noted that the company and the pilots would benefit from a more positive labour relationship between both parties.

Following the November 2019 mediation/arbitration of the ESPP, the company and the pilots were instructed by the mediator to conduct due diligence on ESPP replacement options. Discussions continued in the new year, while an interim trust was created to protect pilot contributions. ALPA and the MEC hired a number of consultants and tax attorneys to assist in the process.

However, early discussions didn’t progress as planned. Knowing that the ESPP was unique, the parties were unable to mutually agree to a program that replicated the value and flexibility of the previous plan. As a result, they would need to solve the issue through arbitration.

By March, the pilots and the company had shifted all of their attention to the growing economic effects that COVID-19 was having on the airline and the airline industry, including a drop in forward bookings and a corresponding rise in cancellations. The airline’s initial plans didn’t include pilot furloughs as both sides had settled on a memorandum of agreement (MOA) to protect as many pilot jobs as possible.

However, within weeks the airline was forced to announced layoffs for the bottom 1,700 pilots on the seniority list, including 700 on May 1 and 1,000 on June 1.

“Following this life-changing announcement, it was important for the MEC to seek a mandate from the pilot group going forward,” noted Capt. Dave Colquhoun, the pilots’ MEC chair. The MEC leaders sought crucial information and feedback that provided valuable guidance to them and the Negotiating Committee as they worked to achieve the most positive outcome possible during such unprecedented times. “What resulted was our pilot group coming together and agreeing to concessions in pay that saved the jobs of hundreds of our colleagues. I couldn’t be prouder of our pilots for making that tough decision,” remarked Colquhoun.

In the end, the hard reality was that 450 pilots would lose their positions at WestJet and Swoop, WestJet’s ultra-low-cost carrier, with some facing furlough and many others experiencing a loss in rank or change in base. But the concessions, primarily a reduction in the minimum monthly guarantee (MMG) hours resulting in approximately a 50 percent pay cut, preserved more than 1,250 pilot positions.

By the end of summer, the initial layoff-mitigation agreements were coming to an end. With no government financial support, the continued impact of travel restrictions both domestically and internationally, and the imposed quarantine for travelers, the situation for WestJet and Swoop pilots continued to look bleak. Fortunately, the company and Negotiating Committee were able to agree to MOA 3, a six-month agreement effective through March 2021 that includes no further pilot layoffs, a gradual increase to the MMG, and other incentives. This MOA was ratified by a majority of the pilots.

However, by August the pilots were informed that Swoop would begin operating out of Toronto, Ont., to destinations that WestJet had been serving for years. Once again, the company was attempting to shift identical routes to Swoop at the expense of mainline flying.

The MEC filed a Step-2 grievance against both Swoop and WestJet regarding the transfer of flying from WestJet to Swoop and held a series of cross-country informational picket events to strengthen pilot unity and bring attention to the issue.

In late November, the pilots and the company entered arbitration regarding the ESPP and ultimately received a favourable decision for the pilot group.

Looking to 2021, the MEC will head to mediation/arbitration to resolve the Swoop grievances with the company.