Canadian discounter WestJet and the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) have agreed to settle a contentious labour dispute through federal mediation and arbitration.
The deal averts the risk of a pilot strike or a company-initiated pilot lockout – both of which formed a cloud over WestJet that negatively impacted bookings.
The airline and ALPA also agreed that ALPA will represent pilots who fly for WestJet's soon-to-launch ultra-discount unit Swoop – settling what had been a contentious sticking point.
"Swoop pilots will be represented by ALPA," WestJet tells FlightGlobal.
The agreement between Calgary-based WestJet and ALPA calls for Canada's Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service to oversee a "settlement process", according to media releases issued by the union and airline.
"The parties have agreed to mediation, and if required, final and binding arbitration," the release says.
"We will move into arbitration after a matter of weeks," WestJet chief executive Ed Sims told reporters on 25 May. "The threat of strike action has been removed for WestJet guests."
"The negotiations will conclude with a binding arbitration," says Sims. "Neither party can walk away from the table."
Both parties say they expect the process will conclude by the end of June.
ALPA agreed to mediation and arbitration under the "very real threat of a lockout" by the company, the union says in a Facebook post.
Unresolved issues will be settled through "interest-based arbitration" – a process that accounts for "the merits of each parties' arguments within the context of today's aviation industry", the union says.
"This process will conclude by late June and WestJet pilots will then have their first ever collective agreement," says the union's post.
WestJet's pilots had never been unionised until they voted last year for representation by ALPA.
WestJet and ALPA already negotiated for 60 days under oversight of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service.
But those talks ended without compromise on 27 April, giving the union the legal right to strike after a 21-day cooling off period, which ended 19 May.
The union threated to call the strike, but pilots remained in their cockpits in recent weeks as the parties negotiated.
"We were coming very close to our own form of action," Sims told reporters on 25 May.
Sims describes the negotiations as among the most difficult labour talks in a career during which he has been involved in seven separate labour negotiations with ALPA.
"Reaching agreed levels on the figures on which we were negotiating was a more difficult process than I've ever experienced before," he says.
The possibility of major operational disruption had a "significant" impact on recent bookings, he adds. "That has been very damaging to the organisation as well as our reputation".
In April Sims told FlightGlobal that the parties were still at odds over how the company would staff the cockpits of Boeing 737-800s operated by Swoop, which is set to launch operations on 20 June.
With the pilot negotiations ongoing, Sims planned for Swoop to get off the ground with pilots hired from outside the company.
The union was seeking to represent those pilots, but the company needed to ensure Swoop's costs, including its pilot wages, were competitive with other ultra-low-cost carriers (ULCCs), Sims said.
Sims "is not a fan" of so-called "b scales" – lower pay rates in contracts that apply to a subset of pilots, he told FlightGlobal.
But the Swoop issue has now been resolved, with the parties agreeing that ALPA will represent Swoop pilots.
"WestJet pilots will now fly all WestJet planes under one collective agreement," ALPA's Facebook post says.
Neither WestJet or Swoop provides details about how Swoop pilots will be folded into the contract.