This airline canceled more than 400 flights due to sudden strike by mechanic union, 49,000 passengers affected

WestJet, Canada's second-largest airline, said it had cancelled 407 flights, affecting 49,000 passengers, after the maintenance workers union announced it would go on strike.

The Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association said its members began the strike on Friday evening after it became inevitable because of the airline's “unwillingness to negotiate with the union.”

The surprise strike, affecting international and domestic flights, came after the federal government on Thursday issued a ministerial order for binding arbitration, following two weeks of tumultuous discussions with the union over a new deal.

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WestJet said it will continue to park aircraft until Sunday for the long weekend that ends with Canada Day on Monday. The airline has about 200 aircraft on standby and says it will be operating about 30 by Sunday evening.

The airline's CEO, Alexis von Hoensbroch, placed the blame for the situation directly on “a rogue union from the United States” that was trying to gain a foothold in Canada.

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Von Hoensbroch said that as far as the airline is concerned, bargaining with the union has ended after the government referred the dispute to binding arbitration.

“That makes a strike completely absurd, because you go on strike because you need to put pressure on the bargaining table,” he said. “If there's no bargaining table it doesn't mean anything, there shouldn't be a strike.”

He said the union rejected a contract offer that would have made the airline's mechanics “the highest paid in the country.”

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In an update to its membership, the union negotiating committee referenced an order from the Canada Industrial Relations Board that does not explicitly prohibit a strike or lockout because the tribunal is conducting mediation.

Sean McVey, a WestJet aircraft maintenance engineer picketing at Toronto Pearson International Airport's Terminal 3 on Saturday, said the strike is an attempt to force the airline to return to “respectful negotiations.”

McVay said the union regrets any inconvenience caused to passengers.

“However, the reason they (passengers) missed or had their flights cancelled is probably because WestJet is not sitting down and negotiating respectfully,” he said, along with about 20 others at the protest site.

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“We take on a lot of responsibilities and we want to be appreciated financially,” he said.

In Pearson, WestJet passengers Sameen Sahan and Sami Jan said they were planning to join family members on a trip to Calgary on Saturday that they planned six to eight months ago.

Sahn said he had received emails earlier in the day informing him that his flight had been rescheduled for Monday, but went to the terminal anyway. He said his attempts to seek clarification with the strike put his travel plans in limbo.

“This inaction is hurting a lot of people, both his own company and his customers, who will likely never be his customers again,” Sahn said.

Jain described the situation as “sad”.

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