Anxiety lands as WestJet pilot strike looms

Dana Sorensen booked a WestJet flight from her home in Vancouver to Calgary, where she’s racing in an upcoming ultra-marathon. But the anxiety of a looming pilots’ strike was too much to bear.

Both sides say they remain in negotiations and hope to reach a deal

WestJet pilots voted 91 per cent in favour of a strike. Passengers are wondering whether they should book flights or wait and see what happens. (CBC)

Dana Sorensen booked a WestJet flight from her home in Vancouver to Calgary, where she's racing in an upcoming ultra-marathon. But the anxiety of a looming pilots' strike was too much to bear.

She paid for another flight on a different airline, a peace of mind that cost her an extra $500.

"[WestJet] kept saying to me, 'You're free to book another flight at your expense, but hope that our flight goes ahead,' and I thought, 'How is that good for the client?' Sorensen said.

"'That's only good for you.'"

WestJet's Twitter account has been flooded by messages from anxious passengers like Sorensen.

The airline's pilots have voted in favour of walking off the job, but for now, both sides say they remain in negotiations and hope to reach a deal. The pilots voted 91 per cent in favour of a strike. They could have walked off the job Saturday, but their union says it will wait until after the May long weekend.

WestJet has been telling passengers they'll provide refunds for any flights cancelled by a potential strike. It says the union, the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), must provide 72 hours notice before taking job action, but the airline says it's currently "business as usual."

"We are seeing quite a bit of concern from anxious guests," WestJet said in a statement.

"WestJet understands how disconcerting the news around a labour disruption can be, and unfortunately there are questions that we cannot yet answer. We continue to work diligently with ALPA on a settlement and we remain confident that we will come to an agreement."

WestJet has made similar statements to passengers on Twitter, but it hasn't been enough to ease the concerns of some who are worried about the prospect of re-booking flights at the last minute, potentially at a higher cost.

Comparable flights almost double, couple says

Phil Wilson and his wife Robyn have been planning their vacation in Dublin for months, having booked their WestJet flight from their Edmonton home in January.

As they prepare to leave on Saturday, they've been looking at what their costs might be to switch carriers. Comparable flights are almost double what they paid.

"We're just kind of gambling that we're going to get on this flight and everything's going to be A-OK," he said.

Wilson said he doesn't fault the union or the company.

"It's not something where I'm mad at the people involved. I'm more frustrated with the situation. Sometimes things like this spill over and you get caught in the crossfire and I feel like that's what's going to happen to a lot of customers."

Under Canadian law, air carriers are liable for damages caused by delays on international flights. Citing previous cases in which the law has been interpreted by the courts, airline passenger advocate Gabor Lukacs said this means if carriers cancel flights, they should cover things like expenses for meals and accommodations, and the cost of flights on other airlines.

'Reasonable steps' to avoid delay

But federal law also says that carriers aren't liable if they can prove they took reasonable steps to avoid the delay.

Al Henderson worries WestJet could argue it took reasonable steps and avoid compensating passengers if it's forced to cancel flights due to a possible work stoppage.

He's scheduled to leave Edmonton June 7 for London to see his son. He hopes the labour dispute will be resolved by then but he's worried.

"Through this whole exercise, it's become very apparent to me that in this country, we don't have any passenger rights," Henderson said.

"If you look at WestJet's policy, yeah, they'd refund you, but that doesn't cover all of your hotels, and you're having to rebook at a higher cost."