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'Meltdown': A week later, WestJet continues to feel the fallout from mechanics strike

Passengers are seen in the WestJet check-in area at Pearson International Airport, in Toronto, Saturday, June 29, 2024. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Christopher Katsarov) Passengers are seen in the WestJet check-in area at Pearson International Airport, in Toronto, Saturday, June 29, 2024. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Christopher Katsarov)

One week after it ended, WestJet continues to feel the effects of a mechanics strike that nearly shut down the airline's network for 29 hours.

The two-day work stoppage that began on June 28 forced the airline to cancel more than 1,000 flights before the end of the Canada Day long weekend, one of the busiest travel windows of the year.

The fallout continued well into last week, as WestJet called off 100 trips on Friday and Saturday as well as at least 31 more on Sunday, according to tracking service FlightAware. Figures from the airline suggest at least 170,000 passengers have been affected.

The task of fully resuming flights by a nearly grounded fleet of 180 planes across more than 175 destinations is complex, costly and time-consuming. In an email, WestJet said it is working to revamp operations promptly.

"We sincerely apologize to all guests affected by the strike," said spokeswoman Madison Kruger. "Our teams across WestJet are working diligently to support all impacted guests as quickly as possible."

Nonetheless, travellers have registered their frustration in a torrent of messages and social media posts, saying the carrier's customer service remained almost unreachable for days.

Many also cited rebooking problems. If an airline can't make new reservations within 48 hours, Canada's passenger rights charter requires it to book travellers on "the next available flight" from any carrier, including competitors, if they turn down the refund — a choice customers say WestJet failed to give them.

Customer Samuel Spencer found himself stuck in San Francisco on a layover last week after his flight was cancelled part-way through his trip home to Calgary.

"Despite there being available seats on an alternate WestJet flight (within 48 hours) and even for the same premium cabin seat for which I was ticketed on my now cancelled flight from SFO, WestJet's auto email just said they had no rebooking options for me and encouraged me to take a refund," he said.

No one was on hand at WestJet's ticket counters and service agents could not be reached by phone, he said. The two times he did get through to the queue, he stayed on hold for more than four hours before deciding to hang up.

"It's been quite the meltdown," he said.

Eventually rebooking with Delta Air Lines on a flight more than two days later, Spencer said he now has roughly $2,700 in extra hotel, meal and transport costs.

"Not only is this a technology fail to have such massive numbers of folks not be able to rebook themselves — completely unnecessarily — it's also a total fail in contingency planning," said Spencer, who owns the Ocean & River Cruises Travel company.

He also called on the federal government and the Canadian Transportation Agency to hold the carrier to account.

WestJet has said it offered guests a refund if they weren’t able to be rebooked within two days of the scheduled departure time.

Ripple effects from last weekend's job action prompted the airline to pull its float from the Calgary Stampede on Friday, a hometown event it has sponsored for decades. The move was "purely people-related," given the recent strain on staff, said WestJet spokeswoman Morgan Bell.

At 5:30 p.m. MDT on June 28, some 680 mechanics walked off the job despite a directive for binding arbitration by Labour Minister Seamus O'Regan. The country's labour board ruled that the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association was within its rights to strike, catching WestJet and Ottawa off guard and forcing the Calgary-based company back to the bargaining table with the union.

The two sides reached a deal — the impasse centred mainly around wages and compensation — on the night of June 30, but not before tens of thousands of Canadians found their travel plans for the long weekend upended.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 7, 2024. Top Stories

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