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Thousands affected after WestJet cancels flights in anticipation of mechanics strike

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Thousands of WestJet customers are scrambling after the airline cancelled about 40 flights ahead of a possible strike by its plane mechanics this Thursday.

Some 6,500 travellers were booked on the cancelled trips, scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday. WestJet said the move reduces the potential for stranded passengers and ensures the carrier can avoid abandoning aircraft in far-flung locations.

Some 670 WestJet mechanics, represented by the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association, are poised to walk off the job as early as Thursday evening after serving the airline with a strike notice earlier this week following months of negotiations.

The Calgary-based company has requested that the Canada Industrial Relations Board intervene with binding arbitration, which would see the labour tribunal hammer out a contract between the two sides — their first collective agreement. In the meantime, the board could bar a work stoppage.

Union members voted overwhelmingly to reject a tentative deal last week and opposed the airline's request for arbitration this week.

Passenger protection regulations entitle customers to a full refund in the original form of payment for the cancelled trips, said Gabor Lukacs, president of the Air Passenger Rights advocacy group.

If the strike goes ahead and WestJet cannot rebook passengers within 48 hours of the original departure time, the airline must "buy passengers seats on competitor airlines — at WestJet's expense," Lukacs said, citing the Air Passenger Protection Regulations.

For trips cancelled before the possible work stoppage, he argued that the carrier must rebook customers on competitors' flights if they cannot get them on board WestJet planes within nine hours of the slated departure. The airline would also be on the hook for meals and accommodations as well as compensation — distinct from a refund — of between $400 and $1,000, depending on the length of the delay.

"If I were an affected passenger, I would give WestJet one chance to rebook me on a competitor. I would record the call/interaction. If ignored or refused, I would buy a ticket on a competitor, and then make WestJet pay for all the expenses plus the standard (passenger rights) compensation," Lukacs said.

'We're going backwards'

WestJet has already cancelled dozens of flights, including the one supposed to take Ian and Linda Cormack home.

“I’m very disappointed,” said Linda, who is currently stranded in Calgary.

They got an email from WestJet Tuesday night explaining their 11:30 a.m. Wednesday flight from Calgary to Toronto was cancelled.

The Cormacks say WestJet did give them an option for a flight leaving Wednesday afternoon but it was routed through Vancouver with a five-hour layover before departing for Toronto.

“They cancelled our flight and now we have to go back to Vancouver and then to Toronto, so we’re going backwards,” said Ian.

The couple looked into other flights but decided against it.

“We did try to change it with WestJet last night but we waited online for an hour. We tried with people (at the airport) and they said basically that’s it there’s so many flights affected,” said Linda.

“We thought maybe take a flight maybe tomorrow but if they do go on strike then my gosh we’ll be here for a few more days,” said Ian.

They also worry about family members flying WestJet tomorrow.

“They’re hoping their flight is not cancelled so hopefully it works out for them for a wedding,” said Linda.

Corey Reid from Calgary was set to travel to the East coast, and though his departure flight wasn’t cancelled, he is concerned his return home could be impacted.

“That’s kind of what I’m worried about. I’m wondering if I should get on the plane because if that gets impacted I’d be in jeopardy of missing my job,” said Reid.

Dozens of flights cancelled

On top of the 40-odd flights cancelled by the airline Tuesday and Wednesday, at least 13 more have been called off so far for Thursday, according to tracking service FlightAware.

WestJet president Diederik Pen said Tuesday night that the airline was "immensely disheartened" to trigger the contingency plan and start parking planes after receiving the 72-hour strike notice.

“We deeply regret the disruption this will have on the travel plans of our guests, communities and businesses that rely on our critical air service,” he said in a statement.

The union said Monday it opposes WestJet's request for arbitration because the process could undermine aircraft maintenance engineers' (AMEs) bid for greater contract gains.

"If adopted by the Canada Industrial Relations Board, it would utterly frustrate the AMEs' goal of reaching an industry-changing contract because arbitrators are generally driven by industry 'norms' – the same norms that have kept AMEs under the heel of management and industrial unions which favour the unskilled majority," the negotiating committee claimed in a statement Monday.

Labour Minister Seamus O'Regan said federal mediators continue to work with both parties this week.

"Mediators are at it. So things are proceeding and we're supporting them at the table where the best deals are made," he told reporters Tuesday.

With files from Mia Rabson in Ottawa and CTV Calgary's Alesia Fieldberg

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 19, 2024.

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