The tail of a WestJet plane is seen dwarfing the Calgary skyline before the airline’s annual meeting in Calgary on May 3, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

Air Canada offers to help passengers stranded by a possible pilot strike

MONTREAL — Air Canada has turned the tables on WestJet by taking advantage of labour uncertainty at its Calgary rival with a suggestion that it is ready pick up the slack in the event WestJet’s pilots decide to strike.

The Montreal-based airline said the public may feel anxious about potential labour disruption after WestJet pilots announced they are beginning a 15-day voting period to give its negotiators a strike mandate.

“With our extensive network and varied fleet, we are well placed to accommodate passengers disrupted by this situation. The travelling public can book Air Canada with confidence,” it said in a news release Thursday.

WestJet took a similar tack in 2011 when Air Canada was undergoing labour battles of its own.

“People who may be potentially stranded do have options,” an airline spokesman said at the time.

Analyst Chris Murray of AltaCorp Capital called the moves pure marketing, by highlighting the challenges facing its domestic rival while also promoting its service as an alternative.

“It’s an opportunity to highlight challenges that your competitor’s maybe having in a way to grab perhaps some market share,” he said in an interview.

WestJet agreed late Thursday afternoon to 14 straight days of negotiations starting Friday, the Air Line Pilots Association said. The union has said that the airline’s management met with them for just 14 of the past 60 days of conciliation which ends Friday.

While both sides face a challenge attempting to conclude the airline’s first collective agreement, a strike isn’t inevitable, Murray said.

“Their relationship with their unionized folks is certainly elevating that risk right now because even beyond the pilots you have other labour groups which are looking to formally unionize and this may be the first of many processes to come.”

Murray said ongoing uncertainty about a potential strike could hurt WestJet revenue per average seat mile, also known as RASM.

Southwest Airlines said Thursday that it expects to see a one to two per cent decline in RASM as passengers have concerns since the April 17 accident that killed a passenger.

“What I expect we’re going to see is probably something similar with WestJet in Q2 and Q3, as Air Canada took pains to highlight today.”

WestJet reports its first-quarter results May 8.

WestJet CEO Ed Sims downplayed the strike vote, calling it a common bargaining tactic in the overall labour negotiating process.

A spokeswoman added that WestJet’s flight operations are unaffected by the strike vote.

A 60-day federal conciliation period ends Friday, which marks the beginning of a 21-day cooling-off period, after which the pilots can legally strike.

The union represents about 1,500 WestJet pilots and 500 WestJet Encore pilots.

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