WestJet facing lower ticket sales amid threat of pilots' strike

WestJet is seeing softer bookings and lower profits as it faces a potential pilot's strike.

WestJet is making plans in case of strike action that could start as early as May 19

WestJet pilots lined up in front of the airline's head office on Tuesday. (Kyle Bakx/CBC)

As WestJet's pilots consider a strike vote, the airline's passengers are considering other options for travel.

WestJet's pilots, who are represented by the AirLine Pilots Association are negotiating their first contract, after forming a union one year ago. Negotiations for a new contract began in September and the lack of a contract resulted in a strike vote two weeks ago. That vote ends Thursday at 8 a.m. and the earliest pilots could strike is May 19.

As a result of the uncertainty, fewer people are booking flights.

"We've seen progressive, what we would call softness or a deterioration on bookings," said WestJet's chief executive, Ed Sims. "And clearly and understandably, we're seeing a degree of anxiety from our potential guests."

Sims said the airline is working on contingency plans to "maintain the best service we can for as many guests as we possibly can. I have almost a visceral reaction to the concept of 70,000 WestJet guests potentially being stranded, 740 flights being disrupted."

Shares tumble on Tuesday

Fewer bookings on the airline has led to lower earnings expectations as well, which didn't please Bay Street analysts. The airline is facing lower sales, while fuel costs are going up and it tries to launch a companion airline in Swoop. There are questions as to whether WestJet may break its streak of 50 consecutive profitable quarters. 

WestJet's share value dropped nearly 10 per cent on Tuesday.

More than 150 pilots lined the entrance to WestJet's headquarters on Tuesday morning, in an informational picket during which they agitated for a contract and called on WestJet to not outsource their jobs to Swoop pilots.

WestJet is planning to get Swoop in the air on June 20. It's designed to be an ultra low-cost carrier, with low fares and also lower labour costs. To that end, Swoop has been looking outside of Canada for pilots.

For their part, WestJet's pilots want to pilot Swoop flights. That will cause costs on the new airline to be higher than WestJet had originally planned.

WestJet has a little more than a week to resolve those essential differences. The airline said Tuesday that in the case of job action, it would refund passengers whose travel plans are disrupted.