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What Rights Do Air Passengers Have Amid the Looming Westjet Strike?

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With a looming May 19 strike threatened by approximately 1,600 pilots of WestJet Airlines and its subsidiary Swoop, thousands of passengers travelling on the May long weekend could be affected by a work stoppage.

Air Passenger Rights, an advocacy organization headed by Gabor Lukacs, provided a statement on May 7 to advise Canadian passengers of their rights if pilots go on strike. It says that specific rights for compensation and rebooking of flights depend on the itinerary, but Canadian legislation dictates that the airline must always offer a choice between continuing to travel or receiving a refund.

If a passenger wants to continue their travel they must be rebooked free of charge on the next available flight operated by any carrier to the planned destination on the original ticket; this includes Westjet or Swoop competitors on any reasonable air route from the passenger’s closest airport or one that is a reasonable distance away.

The airline must also provide transportation to a different airport if required for a new departure.

Air travellers can also request a refund within 30 days of any unused flight. If they can no longer travel because of the cancellation, they can request transportation to the passenger’s point of origin free of charge.

“Additional compensation for out-of-pocket expenses (meals, hotels, lost wages) and inconvenience may be owed to you depending on your travel’s origin and destination,” said the statement from Air Passenger Rights.

The group recommends that passengers record their interactions with WestJet, which may be needed to enforce compensation rights under the existing legislation, the Air Passenger Protection Regulations (APPR).  Some passengers end up having to proceed to small claims court, according to the group.

A pilot strike is considered to be an event outside the airline’s control under Canada’s existing regulations.

International Travel

For passengers that have a flight that is part of an international itinerary of travel, Westjet must legally compensate them for meals, ground transportation, accommodation, lost wages, telecommunications, and any other losses due to the delay, according to the advocacy group.

International travel rights fall under the Canadian “Carriage by Air Act,” also known as the Montreal Convention. According to Air Passenger Rights, the only way the airline can avoid liability for delays is to prove they took all reasonable measures to prevent the delay or there were no options available.

“While WestJet may attempt to deny compensation on the basis of this exception, it is unlikely to succeed in court given that pilots are “agents and servants” of WestJet; the strike was announced weeks in advance, and thus was not unforeseeable; and there is a judicial determination that a strike is not an “extraordinary circumstance,” says the advocacy group.

Canadians departing on a WestJet flight in the European Union or the United Kingdom and returning to Canada have additional rights to cash compensation, meals, accommodation, and ground transportation, under European regulations.

Epoch Times Photo
Members of the Air Line Pilots Association demonstrate amid contract negotiations outside the WestJet headquarters in Calgary, Alta., Friday, March 31, 2023.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

Strike Deadline

Westjet issued a statement on May 15 warning passengers of a potential work stoppage as early as May 19 at 3:00 a.m. MT. The carrier also issued a lockout notice to the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), the union representing pilots, on needing to “minimize the risk of stranding our guests, our crews and our aircraft.”

The airline said it was continuing negotiations with the union, and preparing to operate at a reduced schedule. Westjet, owned by privately held company Onex Corp. since 2019, also committed to providing “flexible change and cancel options for those who wish to make alternate arrangements.”

“Should flight delays or cancellations occur, impacted guests will be refunded or reaccommodated, as applicable,” Westjet said.

If the strike goes ahead, the airline is at a disadvantage, said Jacques Roy, professor of transport management at HEC Montreal business school.

“If WestJet was to go on strike because of an issue with pilots, it will be, of course, detrimental to the industry overall, [and] to the travellers,” he said. “It’s a market where the supply is less than demand. So basically, they are in the driver’s seat.”

In the case of Westjet, the union said on May 11 it had received a 93 percent strike mandate.

The Canadian Press contributed to this report.

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