Almost 830 WestJet flights cancelled as strike hits nearly 100,000 passengers

Nearly 100,000 travellers are impacted as the WestJet mechanic strike continues across the country. Afua Baah speaks with an expert who says summer tourism could be impacted if the labour dispute isn’t resolved soon.

By Nick Westoll and The Canadian Press

WestJet has cancelled 832 flights, upending plans for nearly tens of thousands passengers as an unexpected strike by plane mechanics entered its third day Sunday on the busiest travel weekend of the season.

The 680-odd workers, whose daily inspections and repairs are essential to airline operations, walked off the job on Friday evening despite a directive for binding arbitration from the federal labour minister.

Since Thursday, tracking service FlightAware shows WestJet has cancelled 687 flights scheduled to fly between then and the end of the Canada Day long weekend.

As of Sunday morning, a large majority of the day’s trips (424 flights) had been called off, with WestJet topping the global list for cancellations among major airlines Saturday and Sunday.

Saturday saw the second-highest number of flight cancellations with 282 trips being scrapped.

A statement late Saturday said additional aircraft are being parked and there will only be around 30 airplanes operating across its entire network by the end of Sunday.

Passengers at Toronto Pearson International Airport who spoke with CityNews on Saturday expressed their concerns over the flight disruptions.

“It’s pretty, pretty anxiety-inducing,” one traveller said.

“Disappointed right now. We’ll see where we are in a few hours,” another traveller added.

Customers set to travel with the airline in the coming days were urged to check the status of their flight.

Both the airline and the Airplane Mechanics Fraternal Association have accused the other side of refusing to negotiate in good faith.

WestJet Airlines president Diederik Pen has stressed what he calls the “continued reckless actions” of a union that was making “blatant efforts” to disrupt Canadians’ travel plans, while the union claimed the Calgary-based company has refused to respond to its latest counterproposal. In an update to members Sunday, it said members were “the victim of WestJet’s virulent PR campaign that you are scofflaws,” citing “calumnies” against workers around their right to strike.

The job action comes after union members voted overwhelmingly to reject a tentative deal from WestJet earlier this month and following two weeks of tense negotiations between the two parties.

As the clock ticked down toward a Friday strike deadline, the impasse prompted Labour Minister Seamus O’Regan to step in, mandating that WestJet and the union undertake binding arbitration headed by the country’s labour tribunal.

That process typically sidesteps a work stoppage. WestJet certainly thought so, stating the union had “confirmed they will abide by the direction.”

“Given this, a strike or lockout will not occur, and the airline will no longer proceed in cancelling flights,” the airline said Thursday.

The mechanics took a different view. The union negotiating committee said it would “comply with the minister’s order and directs its members to refrain from any unlawful job action.” Fewer than 24 hours later, workers were on the picket line.

A decision from the Canada Industrial Relations Board on Thursday seemed to affirm the legality of their actions, regardless of typical protocols around arbitration.

“The board finds that the ministerial referral does not have the effect of suspending the right to strike or lockout,” the tribunal wrote.

The labour minister said Saturday that the board’s ruling was “clearly inconsistent” with the direction he provided, but O’Regan later added that he respected the body’s independence.

Both parties were set to meet Sunday morning, the union said.

Not everyone was vexed by the weekend’s labour turbulence.

“We are seeing a huge surge in bookings, presumably from passengers scrambling to save their long weekends,” said Flair Airlines spokeswoman Kim Bowie.

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