FROM TUR­BU­LENCE TO TAKE­OFF

New WestJet CEO nav­i­gat­ing through union storm as Swoop gets set for launch

Ottawa Citizen - - FP - AL­ICJA SIEKIERSKA

WestJet Air­lines Ltd.’s new chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer Ed Sims said the com­pany is hir­ing some of its pi­lots from abroad for its new ul­tra low-cost car­rier Swoop, while at the same time look­ing to close ne­go­ti­a­tions with its new pilot union by the end of the year.

Sims said Mon­day that the June 20 launch of Swoop is on sched­ule, with three pilot classes cur­rently ad­vanc­ing through the train­ing process.

“We’ve been very suc­cess­ful in bring­ing largely ex­pat Cana­di­ans from other parts of the world, (in­clud­ing ) the Mid­dle East and Asia, where eco­nomic con­di­tions for op­er­a­tions were not as favourable as they once were, so those pi­lots are keen to come back to Canada,” Sims told the Fi­nan­cial Post.

“At some stage if we find an op­por­tu­nity that (Swoop) can be op­er­ated by WestJet pi­lots, then we need to dis­cuss that and that will be part of those ne­go­ti­a­tions that we have at the ta­ble.”

WestJet is in the midst of ne­go­ti­at­ing a col­lec­tive agree­ment with the Air Line Pi­lots As­so­ci­a­tion (ALPA), an in­ter­na­tional union that has been rep­re­sent­ing more than 1,400 WestJet pi­lots since May 2017.

Ne­go­ti­a­tions be­tween the two groups had grown tense ear­lier this year, with both sides fil­ing labour com­plaints, and the union call­ing for fel­low pilot unions to im­pose a so-called “re­cruit­ment ban” on Swoop.

For­mer WestJet chief ex­ec­u­tive Gregg Saret­sky, who an­nounced his abrupt and im­me­di­ate re­tire­ment in March, had ini­tially tried to re­cruit pi­lots from its main­line and En­core ser­vices to fly for Swoop by of­fer­ing tem­po­rary leaves of ab­sence. How­ever, the com­pany was forced to change its hir­ing strat­egy af­ter an or­der by the Canada In­dus­trial Re­la­tions Board.

Sims, who took over as chief ex­ec­u­tive in March, said his goal is to reach a deal with the union by the end of the year. He said he had met with ALPA’s ex­ec­u­tive coun­cil for WestJet in the first days of ten­ure, and is com­mit­ted to reach­ing a “sus­tain­able set­tle­ment ... as quickly we pos­si­bly can.”

While his pro­mo­tion to CEO sur­prised many an­a­lysts at the time, Sims said the plan to re­place Saret­sky had been in the works since he first joined the com­pany in May 2017, af­ter hav­ing served as chief ex­ec­u­tive of New Zealand’s air nav­i­ga­tion ser­vice provider Air­ways.

“The suc­ces­sion plan was a pretty well-planned and thought­through process and it was one that Gregg was very much part of and aware of,” he said.

“When the board out here reached a de­ci­sion to re­tire, there was also a view that, in terms of a suc­ces­sion can­di­date, we didn’t need to go out to the mar­ket to look more broadly (for a re­place­ment) ... It was very much a re­al­iza­tion from all sides that there needed to be a very clear and de­fined change of au­thor­ity. That’s why things looked like they hap­pened quickly from the out­side, but it was ac­tu­ally part of a very de­lib­er­ate process.”

When asked about whether Saret­sky’s de­par­ture had any­thing to do with on­go­ing labour ne­go­ti­a­tions, Sims pointed to the for­mer chief ex­ec­u­tive’s nine-year ten­ure that saw prof­itabil­ity and the num­ber of em­ploy­ees dou­ble.

“Air­lines fly into head­winds ev­ery day of the week. Union­iza­tion is one of those, ris­ing fuel prices is one of those, as well as chal­lenges around launch­ing (an ul­tra) low­cost car­rier against new com­peti­tors,” Sims said.

“There comes a time when you’re con­stantly fly­ing into those and you say it’s as good a time as any for some­body else to take over.”

An­a­lysts have cited con­cerns over ex­e­cu­tion risk when it comes to WestJet’s di­ver­gent growth strat­egy that will see it pur­sue prof­its in both the ul­tra low-cost seg­ment, as well as through wide­body, in­ter­na­tional ex­pan­sion.

It’s a strat­egy that Sims has been in­volved with since his ar­rival at WestJet nine months ago, and one he plans on con­tin­u­ing to pur­sue.

“My back­ground is about in­duct­ing wide-body air­craft, fly­ing in­ter­na­tion­ally, and us­ing premium cab­ins like busi­ness class and full premium econ­omy class,” Sims said.

“I’ve been down this road be­fore, and I know the prepa­ra­tion you need.”

Air­lines fly into head­winds ev­ery day of the week. Union­iza­tion is one of those, ris­ing fuel prices is one of those ...

AL CHAREST/FILES

WestJet CEO Ed Sims says he’s pre­pared to tackle head­winds such as the union dis­pute af­ter the sur­prise re­tire­ment of his pre­de­ces­sor in March. “There comes a time when you’re con­stantly fly­ing into those and you say it’s as good a time as any for...

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