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Westjet debacle may be just the start of summer cancellation season  

The mechanics of Westjet Airlines, Canada’s number-two carrier, went on strike last week, leading to the cancellation of more than a thousand flights and causing headaches for some 150,000 travelers.

Once the shining star of Canadian airlines, Calgary-based WestJet’s reputation has taken a beating, and it’s not the only airline feeling the heat. A slew of European air travel worker unions plan to strike this summer. Some have already walked out, cancelling several hundred flights.

Meanwhile, American Airlines, the world’s biggest carrier in terms of passengers, faces a possible flight attendant walk-out that would have a massive and immediate global impact.

The Strike no one expected

So what exactly happened with Westjet?

The carrier and its 680 members of the aircraft mechanics union  ensuring a decent pay increase. But AMFA members rejected the deal weeks later, leading to a binding arbitration effort by Canada’s Industrial Relations Board (CIRB).

Walk-outs rarely occur during arbitration negotiations, with the talks expected to move the two sides toward a deal. But the CIRB ruled Westjet’s mechanics could strike because the government had not forbidden them to do so, and on June 28, that’s just what they did.

The walk-out at the start of a peak summer travel weekend led to the cancellation of nearly 1140 flights, inconveniencing more than 150,000 passengers. Both sides blamed the other for the stand-off until it was resolved late on June 30. But by then, the damage had been done.

WestJet customers on the hook?

Airline strikes are supposed to come with 72-hour advance warnings, giving travelers time to adapt. Not in this case: WestJet customers said they were blindsided by the strike and subsequent cancellations. Most were left stranded, their travel plans in tatters.

With few alternative flights available, many were forced to scramble for accommodation. Only a lucky few were able to get any assistance from Westjet. Stuck in Las Vegas after their Edmonton flight was cancelled, Gary Tater and his girlfriend spent two days on the phone.

“We have spent more than 16 hours on hold with them since Sunday night and each time those calls have been cut off before we were able to speak to someone,” Tater told CBC news.

A Canadian couple celebrating their 10th anniversary in Cabo San Lucas also waited endlessly for phone customer service that never arrived. Westjet patrons for years, they ended up spending an extra $3200 on lodgings and a return flight. “We just feel abandoned,” Andre Estay said.

Hundreds of others took to social media to express similar sentiments, wondering if they’d be on the hook for their extra costs. If a passenger flight is cancelled in Canada due to a strike, it’s deemed outside an airline’s control.

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The airline is not required to offer compensation, but it is required to rebook the traveler on another flight – one of its own or with another airline. Westjet travellers are entitled to reimbursement for flights they booked with a rival and, for international travel, for hotel, food and other costs, according to passenger rights advocate Gabor Lukacs.

It’s hard to know whether Westjet will ever pay up, especially since airline strikes have been found to sharply reduce revenue in the short-term.

More strikes on the way

Summer is air travel strike season in Europe. This year, the list of groups expected to strike include Italian and Scottish airport workers, Irish pilots, ground staffers at London Gatwick, and Turkish air traffic controllers.

Some have already walked out, and as of July 6 several hundred flights have been cancelled across Europe. Expect many more cancellations in the days ahead, especially if the grand-daddy of all strikes comes to pass.

More than half a million travelers fly American every day, so an AA walk-out, even one lasting a few days, could be debilitating for global travel. With help from federal mediators, the carrier’s 27,000 flight attendants have been negotiating a new deal for weeks and are said to be increasingly frustrated.

One issue is that they are not paid during boarding, which is often the most stressful part of flying and includes pre-departure service for first-class passengers. At least one frustrated AA flight attendant has reportedly begun a subtle strike while on the job, refusing to perform pre-departure service.

A possible AA strike is at least a month away, given the required 30-day cooling-off period. In other good news, last week Alaska Airlines reached a tentative deal with its flight attendants that includes boarding pay. Some think that agreement could pave the way for an AA deal.

Strikes are usually averted before they happen, and the WestJet mechanics seem pleased with their new deal, which includes a sizable pay increase. But a slew of other issues imperil air travel today: unpredictable fares, frequent delays, surprise cancellations, lost luggage, and bad weather.

Safety concerns are also on the rise, as highlighted by recent problems in Boeing planes. I’ll dig into some of these issues in upcoming articles. For now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to look into getting some travel insurance.

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LisaLisa is an aspiring expat from Canada who is working to put together her Plan B with a young family in tow. She is excited to pair her lifelong love of writing with her passion for offshore strategies and outside-the box investments in her weekly articles for Escape Artist readers. Follow this “rebel with a cause” as she walks the path less traveled and shares her experiences along the way.
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