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Wednesday,  May 22, 2024 7:43 PM 

“A roller-coaster 24 hours”: Agents sound off on WestJet pilot deal, booking challenges

“A roller-coaster 24 hours”: Agents sound off on WestJet pilot deal, booking challenges
From left: travel advisors Tannis Dyrland, McKenzie McMillan and Lesley Keyter. (Supplied)
Michael Pihach

Michael Pihach is an award-winning journalist with a keen interest in digital storytelling. In addition to PAX, Michael has also written for CBC Life, Ryerson University Magazine, IN Magazine, and Michael joins PAX after years of working at popular Canadian television shows, such as Steven and Chris, The Goods and The Marilyn Denis Show.

Some travellers across Canada are breathing a sigh of relief today (May 19) after The WestJet Group and its pilot union, the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), reached a last-minute deal to avoid strike action.

Had a deal not been reached, more than 1,800 pilots at WestJet and subsidiary Swoop were poised to walk off the job – an outcome that would have represented WestJet's first-ever work stoppage.

But the two sides pulled through, reaching an Agreement in Principle at roughly 12:30 a.m. EST. at the Toronto Westin Airport Hotel, where last night’s collective bargaining unfolded.

Both parties now await a ratification vote to be put forward to membership, according to an update that was sent to media at roughly 2.15 a.m. EST.

Joining customers in that sigh of relief are Canadian travel advisors, who, too, held their breath this week as airline-pilot negotiations dragged on, showing no signs of progress.

The possibility of a WestJet strike became more real yesterday (May 18) as the airline grounded aircraft, cancelling more than 100 flights, representing about a third of its operations.

Alexis von Hoensbroech, CEO of the WestJet Group (far right) reached an agreement in principle with pilot leaders. (Twitter/@WestJetALPA)

The shutdown, which has trickled into today, left travellers (and travel agents) scrambling for alternatives just as the busy May long weekend kicked in.  

WestJet now says it's “ramping up” operations as “quickly and efficiently” as possible, but noted that a full resumption of operations “will take time.”

Speaking on a podcast early Friday, Capt. Bernard Lewall, chair of the WestJet ALPA Master Executive Council, said WestJet’s operations are in “shambles” following the shutdown, which the airline positioned as a proactive move.

“This is gonna take a team effort to get the operation up and running,” Lewall said, urging his pilot colleagues to “go out, if you can, pick up overtime, and help this operation recover.”

"A good news morning"

All things considered, it’s “a good news morning,” Calgary-based Tannis Dyrland, owner of Travel With Tannis, told PAX on Friday.

But after trudging through travel chaos during the pandemic, processing endless refunds and cancellations, the possibility of a WestJet pilot strike, on a smaller scale, still evoked twinges of déjà vu.

“For everyone in the industry, if felt reflective of a couple of years ago,” Dyrland said. “It was emotional to be cancelling and rebooking again, with commissions on the line yet again.”

Dyrland said her impacted clients that are currently in a destination have been rebooked.

“The routing is not ideal, but they’re coming home,” she said.

Yesterday's shutdown impacted dozens of WestJet routes within Canada, to the U.S. and to destinations overseas.

The impacted routes ranged from Las Vegas to London to Barcelona and Saskatoon, and most of the cancellations were out of Calgary or Toronto.

WestJet Encore’s regional flights, as well as Sunwing (which WestJet now owns) were unaffected.

“My first reaction was relief" 

Lesley Keyter, founder and CEO of The Travel Lady agency, which is also based in Calgary, learned about the pilot agreement when her phone lit up at 4 a.m. (mountain time) this morning.

“My first reaction was relief,” Keyter told PAX this morning. “Having a major carrier like WestJet on strike is devastating for our industry and passengers. Of course, the difficulties still continue for many clients whose flights are currently cancelled.”

Up until the agreement was made, Keyter’s main challenge was trying to help clients in an environment that was riddled with uncertainty.  

The WestJet Group and the Air Line Pilots Association have averted a strike. (WestJet)

Speaking with PAX yesterday, Keyter called Thursday’s cancellations “a bit of a relief, because if you see a cancelled flight, you can do something about it.”

But for the flights that were still on WestJet’s schedule – for Friday and beyond – there was “a lot of doubt over how to move forward,” she said.

Some of Keyter’s clients flying with WestJet this week purchased Air Canada tickets as a backup in anticipation of a strike.

Which came at an extra cost for some. One of Keyter’s clients, a solo female traveller returning home to Calgary from Europe, spent an extra $1,000 on an Air Canada ticket (that wasn’t fully refundable) for peace of mind.

WestJet connections to international flights ticketed with other airlines also presented a pickle.

Keyter had a couple booked with WestJet to fly from Calgary to Los Angeles on Friday, and then board a flight to Tahiti, via Air Tahiti, for a Paul Gauguin cruise.

Anticipating a disruption, the Calgary couple purchased a one-way ticket to L.A. with Air Canada – and it’s a good thing they did, because their WestJet flight was cancelled, at the last minute, this morning.

The hope, now, is that the cancellation doesn’t interfere with the Air Tahiti flight, said Keyter, who spent yesterday trying to re-do the ticket with an Air Canada connector.

“With so many planes grounded, I am sure there will be similar situations over the next few days until things get back to normal,” she said.

“In a way, COVID did us travel agents a favour – we are ready for anything!”

“Watch and wait"

Vancouver-based McKenzie McMillan, a luxury consultant and supplier relations manager at The Travel Group, called the last 24 hours “a roller-coaster.”

“Obviously I, along with my clients, are thrilled that WestJet was able to reach a tentative deal with their pilots,” McMillan told PAX. “Clients booked in the coming days are expressing relief that flights appear to be going.”

However: “It’s going to take some time for us to fully see how WestJet will reinstate flights they already cancelled,” McMillan said.

“At this point, we’re waiting to see what they do, as flights remain ‘cancelled’ in the GDS,” he said. “I guess we’re waiting for a little direction from WestJet on how the next few days will look.”

Despite the “watch and wait” situation, McMillan still called the update “encouraging news.”

“We are all looking forward to getting our clients back on track for the May long weekend!” he said.

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