WestJet CEO Alexis von Hoensbroech says a massive gap remains between the airline's offer to pilots and the union's counter-proposal for a new contract as job action looms.
Round-the-clock negotiations between WestJet and the Air Line Pilots Association continue to intensify as the clock ticks down toward a Friday strike deadline.
Around 1,800 pilots at the carrier and its Swoop subsidiary are poised to walk off the job as of 3 a.m. eastern daylight time Friday after the union issued a strike notice Monday night.
The standoff leaves thousands of passengers with travel plans for the May long weekend and beyond hanging in limbo — and has already affected bookings, the CEO says.
With more than 16,700 flights slated for this month, WestJet carries nearly a third of Canada's domestic market, while Air Canada has half of it.
Bernard Lewall, who heads the pilot union's WestJet contingent, says pay, scheduling and job security remain the sticking points.
"The gap is still massive," von Hoensbroech said of the proposals during a video call from the bargaining venue, a hotel in Richmond Hill, Ont.
As worries over a possible strike ramped up, bookings have been "softening" in tandem, the CEO said.
"It is painful," he said, adding that capacity has yet to return to 2019 levels at most Canadian airlines.
"So there are limited options for passengers to move away — which, by the way, also shows that in the case of a disruption, the damage to the Canadian public would be massive," he said, noting that WestJet is the main national carrier for some communities in Western Canada.
In response to the strike notice, WestJet issued a lockout notice shortly before midnight Monday to maintain "control" over its planes, the CEO said.
"If a strike hits us on short notice at a point where we don't expect it, we may strand an airplane somewhere in the Caribbean — in I don't know where," he said. "Then we are in trouble."
The CEO as well as WestJet's chief operating officer and chief financial officer have all descended on a hotel in the Greater Toronto Area to try to hash out a deal with the union.
In the event of a delay or cancellation, customers will be "refunded or re-accommodated, as applicable," the airline said Monday.