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WestJet flight cancellations impact travellers at YYC as pilots' strike looms

WestJet flight cancellations are causing travellers at the Calgary International Airport to reschedule their itineraries or miss out entirely on vacation plans as the airline faces a looming pilots' strike.

As of Thursday afternoon, 92 WestJet flights had been cancelled across Canada, including 26 departures from Calgary.

More than 1,800 pilots at the carrier and its Swoop subsidiary are poised to walk off the job by 3 a.m. MT after the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) issued a strike notice Monday.

The impact was felt immediately by 36 students and five staff members at West Island College in Calgary, who were set to leave early Thursday morning on a red-eye flight to New York.

Erin Corbett, head of school and CEO, said the flight was cancelled Wednesday evening, forcing students to miss out on an entire day of planned tours in the Big Apple.

"We missed out on a number of gallery tours and a dinner and a couple of special events. We don't know what their refund will look like. We'll have to work with our tour provider on that," she said.

"Now, it looks like we're all able to go together and we're just hoping we're actually all booked on another afternoon flight with Air Canada."

Other students at Bishop O'Byrne High School are also nervous about their return to Calgary following a basketball competition this weekend in Dallas.

High school student Abany Deng said she doesn't know how she's going to get home if her WestJet flight is cancelled on Monday.

"I really don't know. I'll probably panic," Deng said.

"It's pretty nerve-racking because I have school to finish. I just need to get home and I'm travelling on my own, so I have no parents with me and not enough money to stay for longer than I planned to."

Some travellers plan to rebook their flights to have peace of mind.

Mike Eerikainen was booked for a round-trip with WestJet from Calgary to Houston for the long weekend but he cancelled the first leg of his trip and rebooked with United Airlines.

"I still have a return flight with WestJet, so we're just going to have to monitor the status of the labour dispute," Eerikainen said.

"I think when it comes to these labour disputes, there are certain critical roles, especially in transportation, where you don't want to stop commerce. Maybe a politician that's progressive can take a lead on this and perhaps we need some right-to-work legislation."

In a statement, WestJet said it had begun to cancel flights and take down its network in an effort to ensure the airline can avoid abandoning aircraft in remote locations and prevent passengers from being stranded.

"We are extremely disheartened to find ourselves in a place where we have to activate our contingency plan and subsequent takedown of our network as a result of the strike notice served by ALPA and their inability to accept a reasonable offer," said Alexis von Hoensbroech, WestJet CEO.

"We remain at a critical impasse with the union and have been left with no choice but to begin taking the painful steps of preparing for the reality of a work stoppage."

The work stoppage means WestJet Group is parking the majority of its 737 and 787 fleets in a "measured, phased and safe approach."

With more than 4,000 scheduled flights over the next seven days, WestJet carries 28 per cent of Canada's domestic market, while Air Canada runs 47 per cent, according to flight-data firm Cirium.

CTV News reached out to Air Canada for insight into how it could increase capacity to make up for WestJet flight cancellations.

In a statement, Air Canada said it has "minimal ability to increase capacity," but its staff are aware of the situation and prepared to assist.

"We are monitoring ticket prices to avoid automated spikes due to any surge in demand; however, given the prior high seasonal demand, the lowest-fare seats are in many cases already sold out," the statement read.

"We will attempt to accommodate customers looking for new bookings with our remaining available seats when possible but it is to be expected that demand will exceed capacity."

Meanwhile, Canadian budget carrier Flair Airlines said earlier this week it was adding additional domestic flights between Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton starting Friday.

Bernard Lewall, who heads the union's WestJet contingent, says the workers' issues revolve around pay, job security and scheduling, with pilots earning roughly half of what some of their U.S. counterparts make.

In a statement to CTV Calgary, Lewall emphasized the importance of WestJet recognizing the value of its pilots.

"Negotiations are ongoing. We recognize flight disruptions are never an ideal outcome in this process, for our pilots or passengers," he said.

"That’s why our negotiators are making themselves available until the end of the 72-hour notice period to reach a negotiated agreement that will help fix WestJet's pilot attraction and retention crisis and allow the airline to recognize its growth strategy."

WestJet's latest offer to the union would see wide-body plane captains earn $350,000 in total compensation annually by the end of the collective agreement term, according to a letter to flight crew from the company obtained by The Canadian Press.

Narrow-body plane captains would earn $300,000.

Lewall noted some 340 pilots have left the carrier over the past year and a half, mostly for other Canadian airlines, but von Hoensbroech said WestJet's mainline fleet has hired three times that number of pilots.

Geraint Harvey, a professor at Western University and an expert on labour relations in commercial aviation, said WestJet will suffer the ripple effects of keeping its planes grounded.

"I think it was a very bold move of management to issue the lockout notice in response to the strike action. When airlines don't fly, not only are they not making money, they're actually losing money," he said.

"Every time an aircraft isn't in the air transporting passengers, the equipment, the airline itself is actually costing money, there's major losses that are entailed from this."

Harvey added that a public offer of $300,000 also falls flat compared to wages from United States airlines and that pilots are faced with a great deal of responsibility and stress.

He said senior pilots will make more, but those just starting out their careers aren't given much of an incentive to keep working for WestJet.

"People tend to forget that a pilot can lose their licence in a heartbeat and as soon as their mental or physical health falls below a threshold, that's it. That's your career over with. So they're like elite athletes in some ways," he said.

"I think what we've got is a labour supply problem and as we know, economics affects people's decision to enter the labour market. There is a huge disincentive now for people to take on this job because of the stress, because of the anxiety, because rewards aren't there unless you've been in positions for a long period of time."

WestJet is advising passengers to be wary of their flight status and check if it is still departing prior to leaving for the airport, or to go to the WestJet or Swoop websites for more information.

With the strike looming, WestJet said it is offering options to passengers looking to change or cancel their flights or WestJet vacations if booked between May 15 and May 21, applied to all potential fares.

Among the options are a $0, one-time fee waiver offered for changes and cancellations.

For others who decide to change their destination, the airline said the customer would pay the difference in fares, but a refund would be made if customers decided to cancel the booking altogether.