April 7, 2020

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WestJet flight attendants anticipate sweeping layoffs due to COVID-19

A pilot taxis a Westjet Boeing 737-700 plane to a gate after arriving at Vancouver International Airport in Richmond, B.C., on Monday, Feb. 3, 2014. The union representing WestJet flight attendants is expecting layoffs of more than 50 per cent as the number of flight cancellations continues to spiral amid the COVID-19 outbreak.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

A pilot taxis a Westjet Boeing 737-700 plane to a gate after arriving at Vancouver International Airport in Richmond, B.C., on Monday, Feb. 3, 2014. The union representing WestJet flight attendants is expecting layoffs of more than 50 per cent as the number of flight cancellations continues to spiral amid the COVID-19 outbreak.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

The union representing WestJet flight attendants is expecting layoffs of up to 50 per cent or more of its staff as the number of flight cancellations continues to mount amid the COVID-19 outbreak.

An internal CUPE memo sent to union officials and obtained by The Canadian Press says that travellers are rebooking "in such massive numbers that the airline operations are quickly becoming unsustainable."

WestJet executive vice-president Mark Porter said the potential layoffs were communicated as "one of several scenarios amongst many" under consideration.

"The current situation is unprecedented and has escalated rapidly in the past week," Porter said in an email. "Unfortunately, we also have no alternative but to reduce the number of employees."

The Calgary-based company's "first and most preferred option" is to ask cabin crew to consider voluntary leaves, unpaid vacation and reduced work time. Other cost-reduction options include cutting back on contractors, freezing capital projects and asking vendors for a discount, he said.

Chris Rauenbusch, president of CUPE 4070 — which represents cabin crews at WestJet and its budget subsidiary Swoop — said that daily conversations with senior management alerted him to the increasingly "severe" situation.

"Basically all new bookings are drying up," he said. "It’s literally changing by the hour."

As recently as Wednesday morning, job reductions of only 12 per cent seemed likely, he said, a number that matches WestJet's recent forecasts.

Since then, however, the U.S. has implemented a ban on most travel from Europe and declared a national emergency; business trips, large gatherings and daily commutes have dropped off; and institutions from the National Hockey League to Broadway have suspended their seasons.

Rauenbusch said one flight from Vancouver to Los Angeles this morning that had booked 150 passengers took off with just 12 on board.

He said the full impact of the novel coronavirus epidemic is just starting to sink in, as flight cancellations increase and consumers abandon airports to make a run on toilet paper.

"We've tried to communicate the gravity of the situation," he said. "I’m not sure reality has set in yet."

Transport Minister Marc Garneau said Friday the government plans to restrict the airports that can accept international flights, so people arriving on them can be more closely screened. The list of airports that will be included has not been settled yet, he said.

Flight attendants at Air Canada said no word had come down about job reductions.

"At the moment, we’re not aware of layoffs or anything like that," said Canadian Union of Public Employees spokesman Hugh Pouliot.

Canada’s largest airline has seen its stock price plunge by more than half over the past two months. It has suspended flights to mainland China and Italy and cut back routes to Hong Kong, Tokyo and Seoul as travel fears spread with the new virus.

In response to the travel bans and cancellations, Delta Air Lines said Friday it will cut passenger-carrying capacity by 40 per cent, the biggest reduction in the carrier's 91-year history.

Delta, which is talking with the White House and Congress about potential relief, plans to halt all flights to continental Europe for at least 30 days and ground up to 300 aircraft to save cash.

Recent booking fee waivers by Air Canada and WestJet have failed to stem the tide of cancellations or encourage new bookings as countries impose border controls and domestic quarantines.

Transat AT Inc., which owns Air Transat — and which Air Canada bought in a deal awaiting regulatory approval — has seen daily bookings plunge by 50 per cent year over year this month, executives said Thursday.

"Things are moving super-fast at this point," Julie Roberts, who heads CUPE's airline division of 15,000 flight attendants, said in an email Friday.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 13, 2020.

Companies in this story: (TSX:AC, TSX:TRZ)

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