WestJet union seeks to narrow pay gap between Canada and U.S. pilots as strike looms

FILE PHOTO: WestJet airline signage is pictured at Vancouver's international airport in Richmond

By Allison Lampert

(Reuters) - Higher pay remains an obstacle for Canada's WestJet Airlines and its pilots to secure an agreement and avert a possible work stoppage on Friday, as a smaller rival on Tuesday said it was adding flights in case of a strike or lockout.

Pilots at Onex Corp-owned WestJet gave notice on Monday that could allow for strike action as early as May 19, raising fears of travel disruptions during Canada's Victoria Day holiday weekend. The carrier has similarly issued a lockout notice.

North American pilots are pressing for higher salaries and better scheduling after aviators made big gains in a recent deal with Delta Air Lines that delivers a 34% pay increase over four years.

"There is a path for a deal I think on job protection. We're getting closer on scheduling. Pay is still the outlier," said Bernard Lewall, a union representative with the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA).

"We need to narrow that gap between the North American carriers and WestJet," he said on Tuesday in an interview.

Lewall declined to give a specific wage target, but said the airline must pay more to retain pilots.

Calgary-based WestJet wants an agreement that is competitive within Canada's airline industry.

"The union maintains its expectation of closing in towards U.S.–like wages, despite living and working in Canada," the carrier said in a statement on Monday.

Calgary-based WestJet narrowly averted a pilot strike in 2018.

Canadian Transport Minister Omar Alghabra on Twitter urged both sides to find a "fair and reasonable deal."

Canadian budget carrier Flair Airlines said on Tuesday it was adding additional domestic flights between Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton starting May 19.

"We hope this measure will help WestJet passengers who otherwise could not travel due to the pilots’ strike,” said Flair CEO Stephen Jones.

WestJet's larger rival Air Canada said its fleet was already fully deployed and had minimal ability to increase capacity further.

WestJet has said impacted travelers would be refunded or re-accommodated, as applicable.

(Reporting by Allison Lampert in Montreal; Editing by Mark Potter)