Following personal intervention by the Canadian government’s labor minister, WestJet management and its pilots, as represented by the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), agreed May 25 to federal mediation of the two sides’ heated contract negotiations, averting pilot strike action.

The federal mediation process is expected to be concluded by the end of June, both the airline and the pilot union said.

On May 10, WestJet’s pilots overwhelmingly approved a vote to strike if contract negotiations failed to produce movement on a new contract. The earliest day for a potential strike, May 19, was postponed to not disrupt travel over the Victoria Day national holiday (May 21) long weekend. After the strike authorization vote announcement, WestJet management added 14 days of additional face-to-face negotiations.

On the eve of that deadline, May 24, Canadian minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Labor Patty Hajdu reportedly met with WestJet management and pilot union representatives at WestJet’s Calgary headquarters.

The following day, WestJet president and CEO Ed Sims spoke to reporters at Calgary International Airport announcing the two parties’ agreement to a settlement process through the Canadian Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, which will oversee mediation and, if required, final and binding arbitration.

“We are pleased with the removal of the threat of strike action, [and] we are grateful for the role played by the government, both with their mediation services and with the offer of support with arbitration,” Sims said. “The message I can give to all Canadians is that they can continue to book in 100% confidence that no strike action will threaten their travel plans.”

Earlier in May, Sims acknowledged the strike threat’s negative impact on bookings, which the airline reinforced by revising and reducing its second-quarter RASM guidance, in addition to curtailing further long-term guidance announcements.

In a May 25 posting on its Facebook site, ALPA said it agreed to federal mediation “under a very real threat of lockout,” an assertion that WestJet would neither confirm nor deny, according to Canadian Broadcasting Corp. News.

In the same posting, though, ALPA did say it had, “after a very tense week of negotiations … obtained the right to fly all WestJet planes, including those operating at Swoop,” a development that appears to have resolved a point of contention in negotiations.

Swoop, WestJet’s ultra-LCC startup, is set to launch June 20. Following a March Canada Industrial Relations Board ruling that prohibited WestJet from using WestJet pilots to fly Swoop aircraft without reaching an agreement with ALPA, the carrier moved forward with training 24 non-union pilots for the new airline.

In an April 20 conversation with ATW’s Aaron Karp, Sims said the “majority of the pilots in the first two Swoop training groups are expatriate Canadians who were flying in the Middle East and Asia … I would love to have WestJet pilots flying those aircraft, but we haven’t reached a settlement with ALPA. Every day we don’t have pilots for Swoop is a day a passenger could choose to fly a competitor.”

WestJet plans for Swoop to operate six Boeing 737-800s by the end of 2018, and Sims insists the ultra-LCC will launch on time. Sims has indicated that settlement of the pilots’ labor agreement is “my highest priority.”

In comments emailed to ATW, WestJet said Swoop pilots will be unionized under ALPA. “In addition to the pilots already hired by Swoop, the opportunity for WestJet pilots to fly for Swoop will be made available to them should they wish to pursue this option,” WestJet said. “All other terms and conditions are to be settled in the negotiations followed by binding arbitration should it be necessary.”

Mark Nensel, mark.nensel@informa.com