WestJet priorities have changed, and so has the culture: Airline expert
As WestJet ramped its operations back up after reaching an 11th-hour agreement with its pilots union, the chief executive of rival Flair Airlines said Friday that the industry must respond to the demand for their increasingly sparse labour.
Stephen Jones told BNN Bloomberg in a television interview that “demand for pilots has really increased across the post-pandemic period,” and that has translated into high compensation demands from the aviation professionals.
“There’s no doubt that the value of pilots has gone up over the last period and it’s something the industry needs to deal with,” Jones said Friday.
AIRLINE LABOUR RELATIONS
Talks between WestJet and the Air Line Pilots Association hinged on union demands related to compensation, scheduling and job protection – with the wage differential between higher-paid U.S. pilots a particular sticking point. The two sides reached a tentative agreement before the Friday 3 a.m. MDT strike deadline, though WestJet had already grounded its planes in preparation and asked customers to keep checking flight information on Friday.
Union representative Bernard Lewall said the offer from the company would help retain and attract pilots at WestJet, after noting earlier in the dispute that work conditions had seen pilots departing the Calgary-based airline in big numbers.
Flair reached its own agreement with ALPA last December, Jones said.
In the lead-up to the Friday WestJet strike deadline, Flair added flights starting at $99 between some Canadian cities in a move aimed at helping affected WestJet customers salvage their travel plans. The first of the additional flights are taking off fully booked, Jones said.
Aviation industry expert John Gradek of McGill University said the pilots’ wage demands were influenced by a contract won by pilots at U.S.-based Delta Air Lines Inc. that will see them receive pay raises of 34 per cent over four years.
There was a wide gulf between what WestJet and the pilots’ union wanted on wages, and Gradek said it’s not yet clear how the two parties found common ground.
“We’re going to find out who compromised more than others pretty shortly,” he said in a television interview on Friday.
He also noted that the disruptions from the past week were the first major threatened work stoppage at WestJet, which could influence employee and customer perception of the airline’s values as “more interested in bottom line” than its company culture or customer service.
“Passengers are starting to question, ‘Has WestJet changed,’” he said.
SUMMER TRAVEL OUTLOOK
Staffing was a major factor in the chaos and disorganization reported at Canadian airports last summer.
Jones said the 2022 summer travel season was a “disaster” as the industry struggled to bounce back from the pandemic.
He said his own company has made efforts to improve time performance and help things run more smoothly ahead of what he anticipates will be a “huge” summer for air travel based on bookings so far.
Gradek said performance in the first few weeks of summer will reveal whether Canadian airlines have done enough hiring and staff training to sort out the issues from last year.
“I’m crossing my fingers that the industry has learned its lesson,” he said.