MONTREAL — Talks between WestJet pilots and their employer dragged on Friday as the union warned a walkout could come as early as next week, leaving passengers' travel plans up in the air.
The Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), which represents some 1,600 flight crew at WestJet and subsidiary Swoop, said it is poised to file a 72-hour strike notice — but not at the earliest opportunity at 12:01 a.m. on Saturday.
"I'm fairly certain that I won't be putting the strike notice in tonight," said Bernard Lewall, who heads the union's WestJet contingent, in a phone interview from outside the negotiating room at a venue in Richmond Hill, Ont.
"It'd be I think a little premature.
"Negotiations have been going OK," he added. "There's still quite a distance between the proposals, but we're both still coming to the table."
The workers' issues revolve around job protection, pay and scheduling, with some 340 pilots leaving the carrier over the past year and a half — mostly to other airlines — Lewall said.
WestJet says there have been three times more pilot hires than resignations at its mainline operation this year.
In a statement this week, the Calgary-based airline said its pilots are among the best paid in Canada, but that a contract on par with those recently secured by some U.S. pilot groups would be financially unworkable and put the company's future at risk.
"ALPA’s expectations of wages, if realized, would pose a significant impact to WestJet’s ability to remain competitive and provide affordable air travel to Canadians," the company said.
Labour shortages continue to plague the aviation industry, with a dearth of workers in areas ranging from air traffic control to ground handling as the sector begins to take off again after the pandemic collapse and travel turmoil over the past year.
In March, Delta Air Lines pilots secured a deal that includes a 34 per cent pay hike over four years.
The Air Canada Pilots Association is aiming for big gains too. In a letter to members Thursday, the union said workers must decide by May 29 whether to stick with their 10-year collective agreement inked in 2014 or opt to start full negotiations ahead of time this year.
“Pilots at Air Canada are working at a steep discount compared to our North American competitors,” the letter states, calling for "historic" gains in the next deal.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 12, 2023.
Christopher Reynolds, The Canadian Press