WestJet begins recovery after cancelling 464 flights over four-day stretch due to extreme cold

The weekend’s disruptions were some of the toughest for WestJet since the 2022 holiday season

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WestJet is beginning to pick up the pieces of a disastrous travel weekend after cancelling more than 450 flights across its network due to record-low temperatures in much of Western Canada.

And as it exits one of the coldest weekends in recent memory for Alberta, the airline said it saw an outsized effect on operations because of its significant presence in many of the western Canadian communities that experienced extreme weather.

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Between Thursday and Sunday last week, WestJet cancelled 464 flights, which it attributed to ineffective de-icing fluid in extreme cold and problems with bridges and fuel stations. During that time, temperatures hovered between -40 C and -50 C in Edmonton — reaching -55 with the wind chill.

The Calgary-based airline said Monday improving weather conditions should set the table for operations to stabilize.

Cancellations in Calgary were still rolling in on Monday, however, with WestJet cancelling 33 flights out of YYC by the end of the day — the majority servicing flights to areas of Alberta and B.C. where poor weather was persisting.

As WestJet’s hub, Calgary was key source of network-wide delays and cancellations

Over the past year, WestJet has asserted its prominence in Western Canada and made Calgary its hub city — meaning several connecting flights to larger ones flow through Calgary International Airport.

Calgary was one of the first cities in Western Canada to be hit by the cold snap, creating a ripple through its network, said Madison Kruger, media relations strategist for WestJet.

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“While the weather events of the past week were felt across the entire Canadian aviation industry, Calgary and the prairie regions were among the first geographies to experience the severe conditions,” Kruger wrote in an email to Postmedia.

“As Calgary is our main hub, and our operations are heavily based in Western Canada, impacts to our network, over five days of extreme temperatures, were compounding for our operations, crews and partners.”

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Under the leadership of new CEO Alexis von Hoensbroech, WestJet has made several strategic moves that included entrenching its position in Calgary and pulling some of its service from areas of Eastern Canada.

The number of departures among competing airlines showcases just that: On Monday, Air Canada scheduled 32 departing flights out of Calgary compared to WestJet’s 127.

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One expert said WestJet’s recent turn to the hub model in which passengers are consolidated for larger flights at major airports — a strategy primarily executed by large legacy airlines — would reasonably expose it to more delays and cancellations.

“(Calgary has) clear skies, it’s drier, there’s less precipitation, so it should be a very reliable airport as a hub operation,” said Barry Prentice, professor and director of the University of Manitoba Transport Institute.

“But that doesn’t mean things always work out.”

Transportation often hits ‘tipping point’ at -25 C, expert says

WestJet isn’t in the clear, though, as it announced on Monday flexible change and cancel guidelines for guests travelling to the West Coast on Tuesday and Wednesday.

The airline said de-icing fluid was rendered ineffective in 11 cities through the cold snap — Calgary, Edmonton, Saskatoon, Regina, Kelowna, Kamloops, Fort McMurray, Prince George, Grande Prairie, Yellowknife and Fort St. John.

The weekend’s disruptions were some of the toughest for WestJet since the 2022 holiday season, when 460 flights were cancelled over three days due to poor weather across the country — though those delays came amid the busy Christmas travel season. January is ordinarily one of the quietest travel times of the year.

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Kruger said operational changes were implemented through the recent weather disruptions, which included “working closely” with Sunwing Airlines, which it owns, and leveraging aircraft from its now-integrated Swoop Airlines planes to ease any disruptions.

“The extreme cold weather conditions and intermittent precipitation primarily affecting Alberta and the larger prairie region of Canada had a significant impact on our operations,” Kruger wrote.

“We sincerely apologize to our guests who were impacted by cancellations and extended delays resulting from the extended extreme cold temperatures over the last week.”

Calgary International Airport
Passengers move through the Calgary International Airport on Tuesday, January 16, 2024. Airlines were recovering from hundreds of flight cancellations over five days during the recent severe cold weather. Gavin Young/Postmedia

Transportation systems — between vehicles, trains or airplanes — tend to experience problems at -25 C or lower, Prentice said, but airlines are most sensitive to those weather-related disruptions.

“It almost seems like there’s a tipping point between -20 C and -25 C, when nothing seems to work the way it should,” he said.

Customers who experienced delays or cancellations can visit WestJet’s website for more information, and passengers are protected under Canada’s Air Passenger Protection Regulations.

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WestJet’s regional subsidiary starts clock on potential job action

Meanwhile, on Tuesday the Air Line Pilots Association — the union representing 300 of WestJet Encore’s aviators, the airline’s regional subsidiary — said it has started the conciliation process by filing for help with the federal mediation service.

The request leaves the labour minister 15 days to appoint a conciliation officer who will work with both sides to get an agreement. Picketing and strikes could follow if a deal fails to materialize.

Carin Kenny, who chairs the union’s WestJet Encore group, says negotiations have come to a “near standstill” as the pilots demand better wages, working conditions and career progression.

The news comes after 1,800 WestJet and Swoop pilots avoided a pilot’s strike at the eleventh hour after days of negotiations, which resulted in those pilots receiving a 24 per cent pay bump over four years.

— With files from The Canadian Press

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