A WestJet Encore Bombardier Q400 NextGen in Vancouver, B.C., before a quick flight to Victoria, B.C.
As 2019 closed, the pilots’ Master Executive Council (MEC) continued its work on contract implementation, including finalizing the details of the newly updated pilot transfer agreement. The pilots were also involved in mediation regarding their Employee Share Purchase Plan (ESPP), which makes up a large part of pilot compensation and needed to be replaced due to Onex Corporation purchasing the airline earlier that year and ceasing the public trading of WestJet stock.
By early 2020, the pilot group’s frustrations regarding flow began to surface. The MEC made the company well aware of its stance on increasing the number of pilots flowing to WestJet as quickly as possible. By the end of January, in accordance with the newly ratified pilot transfer agreement, a new bidding process was announced that would involve all three of Onex’s companies: WestJet, WestJet Encore, and Swoop.
With advancements being made on the issue of flow, the MEC turned its attention to ESPP mediation/arbitration. The company and the pilots were instructed by the mediator to conduct due diligence on various ESPP replacement options. In the interim, the company was tasked with establishing an escrow or trust account to house and protect the pilots’ assets while ALPA hired numerous consultants and a tax attorney to assist the pilot group in this process.
However, within just a few weeks everything would take a backseat due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As the situation remained fluid and constantly changing in the early stages, no one could predict the challenges the global aviation industry would face.
“In the early days of the pandemic, the pilots and the company were very motivated to work together to mitigate job losses for the pilot group,” said Capt. Ryan Leier, then the pilots’ MEC chair. “We quickly realized that by working together we could attempt to mitigate as many job losses as possible, for as long as possible, while also keeping the company viable.”
As the COVID-19 crisis continued to bring Canada and the world to a standstill, contractual concessions were agreed upon to stave off any pilot layoffs. The concessions, a temporary measure, were designed to assist the company in ensuring a viable future. Concessions from the pilot group, along with those from WestJet and Swoop pilots, prevented more than 1,250 pilot layoffs in the early stages of the pandemic.
However, a huge downturn in future bookings forced the company to announce layoffs for May 1 and June 1. Like other carriers had done after the federal government announced broad relief measures for individuals and businesses alike, the company and the pilots looked for ways to use the Canadian Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS) to benefit the pilot group. Through very thoughtful and engaged negotiations, the pilots and the company agreed to a deal that would enable more pilots to continue working while allowing the 250 pilots scheduled for layoff May 1 to be moved to “inactive” status and kept on the payroll receiving the CEWS subsidy until the program’s scheduled expiration in September.
In the fall, the pilots received some good news when the company announced it would be recalling 47 pilots in October and the federal government announced it was extending the CEWS program to December.
There was some bittersweet news for the pilot group in October when Leier was elected vice president–administration/finance of the ALPA Canada Board and announced he would be stepping down as the MEC chair in December. However, his efforts and those of the MEC, including Capt. Pat Pietrzak, the former vice chair and current chair, have put the pilot group in a positive standing, given the circumstances, with a finalized collective agreement; optimism regarding the impending settlement of the ESPP; steady numbers within the pilot ranks, despite the ongoing pandemic; and a robust committee structure in place.