WestJet cancels 235 flights as mechanics strike in surprise move on busy long weekend

Members of the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association stand on a picket line Saturday at Pearson International Airport in Toronto. (Clara Pasieka/CBC - image credit)
Members of the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association stand on a picket line Saturday at Pearson International Airport in Toronto. (Clara Pasieka/CBC - image credit)

A surprise strike by unionized airline mechanics at WestJet has left thousands of passengers wondering whether they would reach their destinations on Saturday after the airline cancelled 235 flights, affecting an estimated 33,000 passengers.

The airline said another 150 flights will be cancelled if a solution to the dispute isn't reached by early Saturday afternoon MT.

The strike decision comes a day after Labour Minister Seamus O'Regan directed the Canada Industrial Relations Board (CIRB) to impose binding arbitration to solve outstanding collective agreement issues between the Calgary-based airline and Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association (AMFA).

In a statement Thursday, AMFA said there is no modern precedent for the minister's action. The order also followed two weeks of turbulent discussions with the union on a new deal.

AMFA said on Friday that roughly 680 workers went ahead with strike action against the company, but the union remains engaged in dialogue with the CIRB to resolve the impasse.

"The [aircraft maintenance engineers] were hopeful this action would be unnecessary but the airline's unwillingness to negotiate with the union made the strike," the statement reads.

Members to avoid unlawful job action, says union

The union said it will comply with the arbitration process and directed its members to avoid any unlawful job action.

The union's legal counsel said the strike is within the union's rights even with the minister's order. Sam Seham said there was no explicit mention that job action by AMFA would be against the law.

"What was silent, or what was omitted, from the minister's referral is any indication that AMFA's right to strike had been curtailed or limited. That is a constitutional right," he said.

"So in that silence, of course the right prevails, the minister did not take any steps to limit that right. There may be some confusion,S but the striking and arbitrating are not mutually exclusive."

The CIRB order, sent to CBC News, said the board found the ministerial referral does not have the effect of suspending the right to strike or lock out.

O'Regan issued a brief statement on Saturday morning, saying he was reviewing the board's order and calling it "clearly inconsistent" with the direction he provided.

"I will be looking at additional steps to protect the interests of the employer, the union and all Canadians travelling over this national holiday weekend."

WestJet says strike designed to 'create damage'

O'Regan previously referred WestJet and AMFA to the CIRB on June 18, but the two sides were unable to reach an agreement.

WestJet responded to AMFA going ahead with a strike on Friday, saying it is "outraged" with the move.

Passengers walk past Air Canada and WestJet planes at Calgary International Airport in Calgary, Alta., Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2022.
Passengers walk past Air Canada and WestJet planes at Calgary International Airport in Calgary, Alta., Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2022.

Passengers walk past a WestJet plane at Calgary International Airport. The airline's mechanics went on strike Friday despite Federal Labour Minister Seamus O'Regan imposing binding arbitration. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

"The government has officially stepped in to provide binding arbitration and ensure we get to a resolution; the only reason for this union to continue with a strike action is to create damage, disrupt the travel plans of thousands of Canadians over the July long weekend and to inflict significant costs on our business," said company president Diederik Pen in a statement.

"Given arbitration has been ordered, a strike has no leverage on the arbitration's outcome, so it is pure retaliation of a disappointed union."

Alberta Premier Danielle Smith, in a post on X, formerly Twitter, on Saturday morning, called on Ottawa to expedite the review of the labour relations board's decision.

"The travel plans of tens of thousands of Canadians over this long weekend and beyond are now in jeopardy," the post said.

"WestJet customers expect an immediate resolution to this matter and for air travel to be restored."

Travellers already frustrated with disruptions

The change in position on Friday seemed to shock both travellers and executives.

"Is my flight on Sunday in jeopardy?" asked Andrew Wheatley of Edmonton in a post to X.

"I support a union's right to strike if it's legal. And hopefully, they will get a good deal. But at the same time, I have to be at work Monday morning."

WestJet had already cancelled roughly 25 flights scheduled for Thursday and Friday, ahead of potential job action.

Sarah Lacombe, a WestJet customer, was booked on a flight heading to Puerto Vallarta for her honeymoon, but was delayed due to unscheduled maintenance.

She'd already gone through the same situation earlier in the week after disruptions from the back-and-forth situation between the airline and AMFA.

"We haven't been on a vacation like this in eight years," Lacombe said. "I want it to get back on schedule and not have any grounded flights for anybody travelling."

Check flight status before heading to the airport

WestJet says more than 250,000 passengers are scheduled to fly over the busy Canada Day long weekend, but the airline will begin parking aircraft in stations across Canada "with the intention of operating a significantly reduced schedule."

Those hoping to travel with WestJet are being asked to check their flight status before leaving for the airport.

"The scale of this deliberate disruption is devastating and AMFA must be held accountable for their reckless actions," said Pen in a statement.

Gabor Lukacs, president of advocacy group Air Passenger Rights, said travellers need to know their rights.

He said WestJet has an obligation under the law to find stranded passengers alternate travel arrangements within 48 hours, either through another of its flights or with a competitor.

People can also ask for a refund, although Lukacs said he recommends against doing so.

"I would urge passengers not to take a refund unless they are absolutely sure they don't want to travel," he said. "If you take a refund then WestJet can wash its hands of its obligations to you."

The airline said it plans to hold AMFA responsible for costs incurred during the strike.

This isn't the first time WestJet has been on the verge of a strike. Last year, the airline averted a strike in the early hours of the May long weekend, but before cancelling over 230 flights and forcing thousands of people to have their travel plans changed.

LISTEN | WestJet mechanics' strike strands thousands of weekend passengers: