WestJet, Canada’s second largest airline, made a surprise CEO change, announcing March 8 that Gregg Saretsky was stepping down “effective immediately” after eight years leading the company.

Executive VP-commercial Ed Sims, who has held senior positions with Air New Zealand and formerly was CEO of New Zealand air navigation service provider Airservices, was named the Calgary-based airline’s new president and CEO. He also was appointed to WestJet’s board of directors with immediate effect.

The leadership move comes following a Canada Industrial Relations Board (CIRB) ruling on pilot staffing at WestJet’s new ultra-LCC subsidiary, Swoop, which threatens to derail plans to launch the carrier in June—although it is unknown whether that played a role in the decision to make a CEO change.

When Sims joined WestJet in May 2017, leaving the top spot at Airservices to do so, he was touted as bringing valuable experience in long-haul international airline operations. WestJet, founded in 1996 as a western Canadian oriented LCC, is scheduled to take delivery of the first of 10 Boeing 787s it has on order next year and is in the process of transitioning to a more traditional long-haul airline. Sims ran Air New Zealand’s long-haul widebody operations.

“With plans well underway for the launch of Swoop and the introduction of the 787-9 … I’m confident WestJet will continue to grow to the next chapter and beyond,” Saretsky said in a statement. Sims added that Satetsky had set “the foundation for WestJet’s global evolution.”

As WestJet moved further away from its original roots, executives feared the carrier was losing access to the most cost-conscious passengers and decided to launch Swoop, which is scheduled to start operations in June with high-density 737-800s on point-to-point routes. WestJet’s pilot staffing plan for Swoop was to allow pilots at mainline WestJet and regional subsidiary WestJet Encore to take a “leave of absence” for two years to fly for the ULCC, and then return to their previous job with no loss of seniority.

But the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA)—which started representing the 2,000 pilots at WestJet and Encore last May and is in the process of negotiating WestJet pilots’ first-ever labor contract—filed an “unfair labor practice” complaint with CIRB, alleging WestJet was circumventing negotiations with the union and going directly to pilots to staff Swoop’s roster.

CIRB agreed and recently ruled to revoke WestJet’s pilot leave policy, casting doubt on whether Swoop will be able to launch on time.

ALPA president Tim Canoll, speaking to ATW and Aviation Daily editors March 8, said he was surprised to learn of Saretsky’s resignation and encouraged WestJet management to negotiate both over Swoop and a wider collective bargaining agreement. He said “everything is on the table” in terms of negotiations and indicated ALPA could be open to a two-step process in which an agreement on Swoop pilot staffing is reached first and then a wider agreement is negotiated. A universal agreement covering all issues is also a possibility, he said.

“It’s not about holding up Swoop,” Canoll said. “It’s about getting to real negotiations right away … This can be put together … Let’s get it done. Swoop is coming. We’d love to bargain on that.”

Aaron Karp/Aviation Daily, aaron.karp@informa.com