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WestJet to lay off 1,700 pilots as airline crisis deepens amid pandemic

Passenger revenues globally expected to decline 55 per cent from 2019


April 16, 2020
By The Canadian Press

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(Photo courtesy of WestJet)

WestJet Airlines Ltd. has confirmed it will lay off 1,700 pilots as the company continues to struggle with fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic.

About 700 pilots are slated to receive layoff notices effective May 1, with 1,000 more kicking in on June 1, depending on employee seniority, according to the Air Line Pilots Association.

The layoffs come amid an ongoing collapse of global travel triggered by border shutdowns and tanking demand, with WestJet parking nearly three-quarters of its fleet and, like Air Canada, slashing the vast majority of its flights through April and May.

“Issuing layoffs, in response to this crisis, has always been a last resort for WestJet; however, the impact of COVID-19 on the aviation industry is colossal, and WestJet is making difficult but necessary decisions to right-size our airline to weather the crisis,” a spokesperson said in an email.

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Rehiring workers

One week ago, WestJet announced it would bring back nearly 6,400 laid-off workers to its payroll using Ottawa’s emergency wage subsidy program.

The earlier layoffs did not affect pilots, who had signed a memorandum of understanding to stay on board through April. The 1,700 laid-off pilots will be placed on inactive status and be able to access the federal wage subsidy, the Calgary-based company said.

The furloughs will apply at the carrier’s mainline service as well as WestJet Encore and its budget subsidiary Swoop.

Discussions ongoing: Union

The union said in an email Thursday that “discussions are ongoing to mitigate the June layoffs.”

Earlier this week, the International Air Transport Association said passenger revenues will fall by US$314 billion this year — a 55 per cent drop from 2019 — due to “severe domestic restrictions” lasting three months, with some international travel controls extending longer.

“The world is heading for recession,” the trade group said, positing that reduced economic activity in the second quarter alone would prompt an eight per cent fall in passenger demand in the third quarter.

Alexandre de Juniac, the association’s director general, called for “urgent relief” as the “industry’s outlook grows darker by the day.”

Canada has not yet proposed an airline bailout package. More than a dozen countries ranging from Norway to New Zealand have thrown their carriers a lifeline in the form of loans, tax relief or direct financial support.