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WestJet Encore pilots vote for strike mandate, adding to airline’s turbulence

WestJet Encore pilots could go on strike as soon as April 17 after they approved a strike mandate Tuesday, increasing the prospect of headwinds after a bumpy year for the airline’s owner.

Aviators at WestJet’s regional carrier voted 97 per cent in favour of strike authorization after contract talks around pay, schedules and career progression came to a “near standstill,” the Air Line Pilots Association said. Some 89 per cent of pilots cast a ballot.

“What that signals to me is that our pilots are frustrated,” said Carin Kenny, who heads the union’s WestJet Encore contingent.

The 355 pilots it represents can walk off the tarmac 72 hours after union leadership files a strike notice. The potential job action or lockout can only take place after a 21-day cooling-off period that started when federal conciliation between the two sides wrapped up last week.

WestJet Encore employs the lowest-paid regional pilots in Canada, driving some to seek jobs elsewhere, Kenny said.

The pilot shortage that she says persists at Encore makes the leap to WestJet’s higher-wage mainline operation a rare feat, since flight crew for its roughly 35 De Havilland Dash 8-400 turboprop planes are needed at the regional service.

WestJet pilots picketing ahead of a potential strike in May 2023. (Justin Pennell/CBC)

“Right now, there’s nobody coming in, particularly into the captain ranks,” Kenny said. “We’re not replacing them, and the captains are generally the ones that have the seniority to move over to WestJet. It’s sort of a revolving door of trying to fix that.”

Encore is recruiting newer pilots, she qualified. “But the problem is that they’re not staying. They’re getting their experience and then they’re going elsewhere — to Porter or Jazz or Air Canada or Flair. Some are going overseas.”

WestJet Airlines president Diederik Pen said a strike authorization vote marks a common step by unions in the context of labour negotiations.

“We are steadfast in our commitment to reach an agreement with ALPA that addresses the unique concerns of our Encore pilots, is competitive within Canada’s airline industry and ensures we have a long-term sustainable future so that we can continue to operate critical air service for millions of Canadians, while providing meaningful employment for thousands at the WestJet Group,” Pen said in a statement.

The airline narrowly averted a strike last year after talks with a different set of pilots came down to the wire, prompting the carrier to cancel more than 230 flights in preparation for job action before a deal was reached hours ahead of the walkout deadline.

The collective agreement with pilots at WestJet and its Swoop subsidiary — but not WestJet Encore — granted a 24 per cent pay bump over four years.

WestJet announced in June last year it would wind down the five-year-old Swoop and fold the budget airline’s operations under its main banner.

The potential labour disruption comes as Canada’s second-largest carrier faces indefinite delays on dozens of new aircraft deliveries after a panel blowout on a Boeing 737 Max plane in January pushed back certification for the Max 10 as the U.S. aircraft maker contends with greater scrutiny from regulators.

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