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WestJet faces Swoop hiccup as pilot union files complaint

The new union representing pilots at WestJet has struck out against the low-cost carrier, filing a complaint against WestJet with Canadian labour relations officials.

The Air Line Pilots Association, International (ALPA) says WestJet's management has improperly negotiated terms related to how it will staff the cockpits of aircraft operated by WestJet's new ultra-low-cost subsidiary Swoop.

News of pilot troubles surface on 6 February during WestJet's 2017 earnings call, when chief executive Gregg Saretsky said open negotiations with the union left management uncertain where they would get Swoop's pilots.

Saretsky said WestJet hopes to staff the aircraft with pilots who now fly for WestJet or regional subsidiary Encore, but added that the company is prepared to hire outside pilots.

WestJet is already selling tickets for Swoop's planned launch of operations on 20 June.

ALPA's 9 February "unfair labour practice complaint" with the Canadian Industrial Relations Board says WestJet has negotiated "key terms and conditions of employment at Swoop" directly with pilots rather than with ALPA, violating Canadian labour laws.

WestJet declines to comment.

The union says the Calgary-based carrier has been "interfering with ALPA's exclusive representational rights of WestJet and WestJet Encore pilots and… changing and ignoring well-established pilot work rules and policies", according to ALPA.

"ALPA is asking the [Industrial Relations Board] to take immediate action to neutralise the potential harm to WestJet and WestJet Encore pilots," it adds.

The union expects a ruling "in the coming weeks".

Also on 9 February, ALPA requested that the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service assist with the ALPA-WestJet negotiations.

Non-union employee group WestJet Pilots' Association formerly represented WestJet pilots, but in May 2017 pilots voted for formal union representation by ALPA.

The parties have been negotiating a new contract since September 2017, but "remain far apart on many issues", says the union.

Swoop is the name of WestJet's newly-formed ultra-low-cost subsidiary, which will operate Boeing 737-800s crammed with 189 seats and charge fees atop discount fares.

WestJet says the unit's low fares will stimulate new demand, enabling it to tap into an unmet market segment. Canada currently has no ultra-low-cost carriers, but a startup called Jetlines also hopes to launch this year.

Saretsky said on 6 February that the company's existing pilot agreement – the one negotiated with the employee group – combines pilots at both WestJet and Encore into a single seniority list. That structure, while unique among North American airlines, dictates how and when pilots move from first officer to captain and from Encores' turboprops to WestJet's Boeing 737s.

Saretsky said he is unsure if that single-list structure will be included in the next contract.

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