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WestJet cancels flights, including in Edmonton, as aircraft maintenance engineers prepare to strike

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WestJet has started cancelling some flights across the country, including Edmonton, as its aircraft maintenance engineers (AME) and tech ops staff prepare to walk off the job.

"We feel like there's no other choice here," said Christopher Gatto, an AME in Edmonton.

"I think if you were to ask any aircraft maintenance engineer if they felt like they got enough compensation or enough respect for what they do you're not going to find a single yes," he added.

The union representing AME's issued 72-hour strike notice earlier this week.

"The strike vote was actually in response to WestJet deciding that they didn't want to negotiate anymore," Gatto said.

"We wanted to go back to the table but WestJet said no," he added.

WestJet has asked the Canadian Industrial Relations Board (CIRB) to intervene in the negotiations under the Canada Labour Code. If the CIRB gets involved, it would mean both sides would be sent to arbitration for a first collective agreement, preventing labour action.

While the company waits for an answer from the CIRB it has grounded some flights as the strike deadline approaches.

"We are immensely disheartened that we are in a position where we must activate our contingency plan and begin parking aircraft," said Diederik Pen, president of WestJet Airlines, in a news release.

As of Wednesday morning WestJet announced 40 flight cancellations, affecting 6,500 passengers. The company said it is making "every effort" to find alternatives for impacted guests.

According to an Edmonton International Airport (YEG) spokesperson, it includes six departures and three arrivals in the capital city.

"This union and all of the people standing behind me, none of us want to see any flights being cancelled or anyone's travel being interrupted," said Ian Evershed with the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association.

"We feel we have to take a stand," he added.

Gatto said 97 per cent of union members voted down a temporary agreement, while 98 per cent voted to strike.

A big sticking point is said to be compensation.

"It's been quite a few decades of AMEs being paid really far under what they should be paid based on the responsibilities they take on everyday," Gatto said.

An aviation expert says there's a shortage of AMEs and pilots in the industry.

"There's only 600 AMEs being introduced into the industry through colleges and only 77 per cent are staying in the industry. We're going to be about 5,000 or 5,500 AMEs short over the next few years," said Phyl Durdey, CTV News aviation specialist.

He believes the union will get a good deal.

"What they're forcing is the industry to start paying the AMEs a good wage, a good salary," Durdey said.

The company called its offer in the tentative agreement "generous."

"Would have made our Aircraft Maintenance Engineers the highest paid in the country, with a take-home pay increase of 30 to 40 per cent," Pen said.

However, Gatto said the latest offer from the company was not good for behind-the-scenes tech ops personnel.

"They were put in a position where if they accepted the TA, some of them might have actually taken pay cuts," he said.

Gatto said the strike decision is also about solidarity.

"We're just going to stand up for what we believe in and what we feel like we deserve," he said.

The strike deadline is Thursday starting at 7 p.m. MT.

Anyone with flights booked through WestJet is encouraged to check its status before heading to the airport.