MONTREAL — WestJet pilots are bound for a 24 per cent pay bump over four years under an agreement-in-principle between the company and the union.
Pilots will receive a 15.5 per cent hourly pay raise this year retroactive to Jan. 1 upon ratification of the deal, according to a copy of the tentative agreement summary obtained by The Canadian Press.
It also lays out a cumulative 8.5 per cent hike to their hourly wage over the remainder of the contract, from 2024 through 2026.
Bargaining came down to the wire last week, with WestJet cancelling more than 230 flights in preparation for job action before a deal was reached hours ahead of the strike deadline on May 19.
The agreement sets a new standard for labour gains in Canadian aviation, says consultant Rick Erickson.
“That’s a pretty substantive boost" — particularly this year's 15.5 per cent pay hike — said Erickson, managing director of R.P. Erickson and Associates. "You can bet that Air Canada's pilot union will be looking at this very, very closely," as well as other groups such as flight attendants.
Flight crews at the country's biggest carrier may soon be in bargaining themselves. In a letter to members this month, the Air Canada Pilots Association said workers must decide by May 29 whether to stick with their 10-year collective agreement inked in 2014 or opt to start full negotiations ahead of time this year.
The WestJet deal could also make it tougher for budget airline competitors Flair Airlines and Lynx Air to retain pilots, even as they gain an edge on labour costs.
"'Does it make sense for me to stay here where I am? Or should I move over to one of the majors where I'll get paid better for it but have completely different working circumstances?'" Erickson asked, paraphrasing pilots who would have higher compensation but lower seniority — and thus worse scheduling options — on arrival at a large airline.
Nonetheless, the higher compensation cost that WestJet managers now have to contend with amid a competitive domestic and cross-border market "has to worry them enormously," he added.
The summary of the tentative agreement also stipulates the "integration of Swoop flight operations into WestJet mainline" starting this fall, with "full integration no later than October 2024."
The provision appears to spell out an internal merger of the two entities flight planning that brings pilots onto a level pay scale and allows them to toggle between both carriers.
Calgary-based WestJet, owned by Onex Corp., declined to comment on the specifics of the deal.
"As the tentative agreement between the WestJet Group and ALPA has not yet been ratified by its membership, we are unable to disclose the terms of the agreement," spokeswoman Denise Kenny said in an email.
The ratification vote on the tentative agreement opens Tuesday, with WestJet and discount subsidiary Swoop's 1,800 pilots able to cast a ballot through June 9, the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) said Friday.
Bernard Lewall, who heads the union's WestJet contingent, said last Friday after reaching a deal that the union achieved its main goals of better pay, job security and work-life balance.
The preliminary agreement includes a 15 per cent increase in per diems, more flexible scheduling and even "extra legroom seats for all deadheads" — when an employee flies for free as a passenger en route to or from an assignment.
As negotiations ground on last week, the Air Line Pilots Association also approved a merger with the Air Canada Pilots Association's 4,500 members, bringing the country's two biggest flight crew labour groups under one roof.
The move means 95 per cent of professional Canadian pilots are represented by a single union, according to Charlene Hudy, the Air Canada union's council chair.
Labour shortages continue to plague the aviation industry, with a dearth of workers in areas ranging from air traffic control to ground handling as the sector begins to take off again after the pandemic collapse and travel turmoil over the past year.
In March, Delta Air Lines pilots secured a deal that includes a 34 per cent pay hike over four years.
American Airlines pilots authorized a strike amid contract negotiations earlier this month before reaching a preliminary deal last week.
United Airlines pilots are also in the middle of talks, pushing for even higher pay than their Delta counterparts, as well as comparable quality-of-life provisions. Those might include clauses that prevent airlines from requiring pilots to accept assignments on days off.
"We're entering into a period in the whole of the airline industry in North America of labour unrest," Erickson said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 26, 2023.
Christopher Reynolds, The Canadian Press