WestJet pay debate sets scene for Air Canada’s pilots

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Pilots at Onex Corp-owned WestJet announced on Monday that they could go on strike as early as Friday, raising fears of travel disruption over the weekend of Canada’s Victoria Day holiday.

On Thursday, WestJet said it had already canceled its flights in anticipation of the strike. The airline said it remained at the negotiating table with the pilots but was ready to “temper the labor action for as long as it takes to reach a reasonable result.”

It would be the first major pilot strike in Canada since 1998, according to a spokesman for Canada’s Labor Minister Seamus O’Regan, who is at the talks.

For both sides, the salary remains an obstacle. While WestJet is pricing salaries into the Canadian market, their aviators represented by the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) want to capitalize on the US gains, following a recent agreement with Delta Air Lines that gives an increase in -wages of 34% over four years.

The 4,500 Air Canada pilots who joined ALPA this week are not currently in negotiations, but could begin bargaining this summer before the end of a decade-long agreement reached in 2014 with -Canada’s largest carrier.

ALPA president Jason Ambrosi recently told Reuters that a top priority is to reduce the pay gap between Air Canada pilots and their counterparts in the United States, echoing the request of the union for a “North American” contract at WestJet.

“This will be on the desk of a real AC soon,” said John Gradek, a faculty lecturer in aviation management at McGill University in Montreal, referring to Air Canada.

Gradek added that there is a group of Air Canada pilots “who were covering the bit” to get a significant increase in wages.

Montreal-based Air Canada said it was premature to discuss the timing of the talks, pointing out that it has a collective agreement in place with its pilots for up to 10 years.

The carrier, hard hit by the Canadian lockdown during COVID-19, is now growing capacity to meet robust travel demand.

Air Canada pilots, who have received a 2% annual pay increase since 2014, have complained that Delta’s latest hourly pay rates are up to 45% higher.

Some industry analysts argue that it will be difficult to price salaries equally for both markets, given Canada’s high taxes and fees and sparse population.

“It’s a much harder place to make money,” said aviation consultant Mike Boyd.

While there are differences between Air Canada and the legacy US carriers, pilots tend to believe there should be pay parity across the board, the TD analyst said. Cowen Helen Becker.

“Pilots across the board believe they are underpaid for the work they do,” she said.

(Reporting by Allison Lampert in Montreal; Additional reporting by Nilutpal Timsina in Bengaluru; Editing by Sonali Paul)

By Allison Lampert

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