A WestJet Encore Bombardier Q400 NextGen soars through the Canadian sky. Photo courtesy of Bombardier
Despite uncertainty heading into 2022—due to an attempt by WestJet Group to purchase Sunwing Vacations and Sunwing Airlines, debates over the status of the pilot transfer agreement between WestJet Encore pilots and WestJet mainline pilots, and an incoming new CEO—WestJet Encore pilots continued taking major strides toward cementing themselves as a mature group within the ALPA Canada hierarchy through a number of measures and initiatives.
They were the first Canadian pilot group to activate ALPA’s Data Action Report program and one of the first groups to resume in-person meetings on a regular basis after the pandemic began to wane while proactively gaining traction in preparation for upcoming contract negotiations in 2023.
The pilot group also continued to sit in the enviable position of having Master Executive Council (MEC) stability, an increasingly robust committee structure, and pilot unity and support regarding MEC business.
However, WestJet Encore was facing a major challenge: pilot retention. In a series of meetings early in the year with management, MEC leaders strongly advocated the need to swiftly address the issue.
The MEC provided ideas and plans on how to combat pilot attrition, with the overarching theme that finding long-term solutions to pilot-retention and career-progression issues must come sooner rather than later in collaboration with the pilots.
Management acknowledged that the issue did exist and offered a series of ideas that, when presented, were more of a short-term solution. Both groups agreed to continue discussions on the matter.
Pilot retention would be compounded by WestJet’s announcement in early June that it was restructuring its fleet of Bombardier Q400s with a renewed focus on western Canada and prioritizing “connectivity in the west,” leading to reduced flying on eastern Canada routes.
The carrier’s announcement, in addition to the potential impact of the proposed Sunwing acquisition on WestJet Encore operations and the future of the pilot transfer agreement, created anxiety and uncertainty for Encore pilots.
After research and discussion, the MEC once again met with management to discuss the future of the operation and how they intended to work through its operational challenges. MEC leaders presented a new framework to management outlining that solving pilot attrition and operational issues in today’s market required the unification of WestJet Encore and WestJet pilots into one bargaining unit and one airline.
Shortly after these discussions took place, the MEC was notified that WestJet pilots voted to cancel the pilot transfer agreement between the two groups. While the news was disappointing, it was another indication that the airline urgently needed to fix the pilot retention problem at WestJet Encore and place more value on the work of Encore pilots.
As summer turned to fall, WestJet Encore pilot leaders reiterated to management the solutions they believed could provide the pilots with a more stable career path that recognizes career progression while minimizing the uncertainty that lies with WestJet Group.
“Senior management has indicated how important Encore is to its operation and has acknowledged the need to fix many of the issues we have in front of us. Management has also indicated a willingness to discuss opening our negotiations for our second collective agreement early in order to solve these issues,” said Capt. Carin Kenny, the pilot group’s MEC vice chair.
While negotiations had yet to begin by the end of 2022, management reached out to the MEC to discuss pilot retention and cost-of-living issues. Although these talks don’t fall under full contract negotiations, the pilots are hopeful that the discussions will lead to positive results and will address the significant issues WestJet Encore pilots are facing.