WestJet pilots file labor complaint over hiring at new budget airline

MONTREAL (Reuters) - The union representing pilots at WestJet Airlines Ltd said on Friday it filed a labor complaint against Canada’s No. 2 commercial airline, adding tensions to talks over their first contract.

FILE PHOTO: A Westjet Boeing 737-700 takes off at the International Airport in Calgary, Alberta, May 3, 2011. REUTERS/Todd Korol/File Photo

The Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) said it filed an unfair labor practice with the Canada Industrial Relations Board (CIRB) against WestJet for bypassing the union during hiring at the airline’s new ultra-low-cost carrier Swoop, among other issues.

Analysts have raised concerns about the pilots’ recent decision to unionize, at a time when WestJet was adding international flights and launching Swoop as a separate carrier.

Swoop, which will charge a base ticket price that covers a seat and a small personal item, faces a cost disadvantage against U.S. budget airlines because of high Canadian airport fees and taxes.

ALPA says a key issue in the dispute is whether the pilots who work for the new no-frills carrier should earn the same rates as the men and women who fly WestJet planes, with the union arguing they should all have the same contract.

“Our pilots do not take issue with Swoop,” said Rob McFadyen, chairman of WestJet’s ALPA Master Executive Council in a phone interview.

“Our pilots will gladly fly Swoop planes as WestJet pilots.”

WestJet spokeswoman Lauren Stewart declined to comment on Friday, but the Calgary-based carrier recently said it was offering leaves of absence for pilots who wanted to work for Swoop. WestJet has filed its own complaint to the labor board against the pilots and has accused the union of trying to prevent pilots from flying for Swoop.

During a recent call with analysts, WestJet Chief Executive Officer Gregg Saretsky said the carrier estimated it needs around 200 captains to staff Swoop’s planned fleet of 40 aircraft. The company said it would prefer to hire the majority of the pilots from its existing WestJet pilot list.

ALPA said it hopes to get a CIRB ruling in the coming weeks, to stop WestJet from allowing pilots to take leaves of absences to join Swoop.

Reporting by Allison Lampert; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe and Tom Brown