WestJet Encore averts pilot strike with tentative deal

WestJet president Diederik Pen says the new agreement comes as a "relief" for all parties as well as for travellers.

Planes could have been grounded as early as Saturday if no deal was reached

An airplane on a runway with the passenger door open.
The Air Line Pilots Association says the tentative deal, which its membership is set to vote on next month, will help with pilot retention, working conditions and work-life balance. (Francois Biber/CBC)

WestJet Encore and its pilots reached a deal Thursday after two weeks of negotiations, steering clear of a potential strike this week.

The Air Line Pilots Association, which represents the 358 pilots at the regional carrier, issued a 72-hour strike notice Wednesday evening that could have seen a work stoppage as early as this weekend.

Meanwhile, WestJet sent a lockout notice to the union, saying planes could be grounded as early as 6 p.m. MT on Saturday if no collective agreement was secured.

In a phone interview minutes after the two sides shook hands at a hotel near the Calgary airport, WestJet president Diederik Pen said the new agreement comes as a "relief" for all parties as well as for travellers, some 6,000 of whom would have been affected for each day of a strike.

"We worked through it constructively and found a solution without changing the size of the pie," he said, specifying that the deal includes no wage hikes.

"You need to find something where I have the affordability and the long-term stability, and they have their career and some of their lifestyle.

"When everybody else goes on holiday, they work harder than anybody else," Pen said of the pilots.

The union said the tentative deal will help with pilot retention, working conditions and work-life balance. Carin Kenny, who heads the union's WestJet Encore contingent, said she was "very pleased" with the agreement, which members are set to vote on next month.

The pilots, who approved a strike mandate in early April, rejected an initial tentative agreement earlier this month. The union said at the time that members voted 97 per cent in favour of the mandate after contract talks around pay, schedules and career progression came to a "near standstill."

The new would-be deal steers clear of the turbulence wrought by 11th-hour agreements of the sort reached a year ago between WestJet and the union representing pilots at its mainline operation and the now shuttered discount subsidiary Swoop. The late-night deal came only after the carriers had cancelled more than 130 flights in anticipation of a possible work stoppage.

WestJet Encore flies to destinations in Western Canada and three U.S. cities. While the 120 trips that Encore operates daily represent only about 10 per cent of WestJet's network, nearly half of those regional trips feed into flights on its mainline service.

That means a work stoppage would have made the entire operation less profitable, rather than simply its regional division.

"That's the magnitude of the potential impact," Pen said.