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‘Meltdown’: A week later, WestJet continues to feel the fallout from mechanics strike

Fallout from the unexpected job action continued well into last week, and figures from the airline suggest at least 170,000 passengers have been affected.
WestJet continues to feel the effects of a mechanics strike one week after it ended. Passengers are seen in the WestJet check-in area at Pearson International Airport, in Toronto, Saturday, June 29, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Christopher Katsarov”

WestJet continues to feel the effects of a two-day plane mechanics strike that nearly shut down the airline's network for 29 hours over the Canada Day long weekend and cost it millions of dollars.

The work stoppage that began on June 28 forced the airline to cancel more than 1,050 flights during one of the busiest travel windows of the year.

Fallout from the unexpected job action continued well into last week, as WestJet called off 244 trips Tuesday through Saturday as well as at least 32 more on Sunday, according to tracking service FlightAware. Figures from the airline suggest at least 170,000 passengers have been affected.

The task of fully resuming flights by a nearly grounded fleet of 180 planes across more than 175 destinations is complex, costly and time-consuming. In an email, WestJet said it was on track to revamp operations promptly.

"We sincerely apologize to all guests affected by the strike," said spokeswoman Madison Kruger. "Our teams across WestJet are working diligently to support all impacted guests as quickly as possible."

Nonetheless, travellers have registered their frustration in a torrent of messages and social media posts, saying the carrier's customer service remained almost unreachable for days.

April Miller of Arizona said she was on hold for 30 hours without getting through. Another, Harry Eskander, said Friday he hadn't received a "single email" from the airline since his family's June 30 flight to Toronto from Cancun, Mexico, was cancelled 16 hours before departure.

"WestJet completely ignored us, ruined our vacation and we faced too much stress emotionally and financially," he said. The family eventually found seats on a Delta Air Lines flight at a cost of $2,500, he said.

Many also cited rebooking problems. If an airline can't make new reservations within 48 hours, Canada's passenger rights charter requires it to book travellers on "the next available flight" from any carrier, including competitors, if they turn down the refund — a choice customers say WestJet failed to offer.

Samuel Spencer's flight was cancelled part-way through his trip home to Calgary last week, stranding him in San Francisco on a layover.

"Despite there being available seats on an alternate WestJet flight (within 48 hours) and even for the same premium cabin seat for which I was ticketed on my now cancelled flight from SFO, WestJet's auto email just said they had no rebooking options for me and encouraged me to take a refund," he said.

No one was on hand at WestJet's ticket counters and service agents could not be reached by phone, he said.

"It's been quite the meltdown."

Eventually rebooking on a Delta flight more than two days later, Spencer said he now has roughly $2,700 in extra hotel, meal and transport costs.

"Not only is this a technology fail to have such massive numbers of folks not be able to rebook themselves — completely unnecessarily — it's also a total fail in contingency planning," said Spencer, who owns the Ocean & River Cruises Travel company.

He called on the federal government and the 91ԭ Transportation Agency to hold the carrier to account.

WestJet has said it offered guests a refund if they couldn't be rebooked within two days of the scheduled departure time. The company must respond to expense and compensation claims within 30 days, it added.

"Compensation for hotels and meals is not required under the (Air Passengers Protection Regulations) for situations outside of a carrier’s control," Kruger added.

Whether cancellations made days after the strike ended are caused by factors outside of WestJet's control remains in dispute, with the company on one side and advocates on the other.

Small claims court is one route to possible reimbursement should the airline reject a request, including for costs incurred from a last-minute flight — with WestJet or another airline — said Gabor Lukacs, president of the Air Passenger Rights advocacy group. Customers can also file a complaint with the transportation agency.

A "cancel fee" that WestJet highlighted in emails informing travellers their flight had been called off has also raised eyebrows. WestJet did not respond to questions about the charge.

Ripple effects from last weekend's work stoppage prompted the airline to pull its float from the Calgary Stampede on Friday, a hometown event it has sponsored for decades. The move was "purely people-related," given the recent strain on staff, said WestJet spokeswoman Morgan Bell.

At 5:30 p.m. MDT on June 28, some 680 mechanics walked off the job despite a directive for binding arbitration by federal Labour Minister Seamus O'Regan. The workers are essential to daily plane inspections and repairs.

The country's labour board ruled that the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association was within its rights to strike, catching WestJet and Ottawa off guard and forcing the Calgary-based company back to the bargaining table with the union.

The two sides reached a deal — the impasse centred mainly around wages and compensation — on the night of June 30, but not before tens of thousands of 91ԭs found their travel plans for the long weekend upended.

This report by The 91ԭ Press was first published July 7, 2024.

Christopher Reynolds, The 91ԭ Press