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COLUMN: Albertans’ love affair with WestJet long over

We are just a number, one to be used and abused by the airline in a dispute with its own staff.
Nelson Chris web
Chris Nelson

Flying WestJet these days is akin to accidentally meeting your first love years later and realizing how much you once had in common yet how far you’ve grown apart.

Yes, we are not the same people: so many things have happened and so much time passed. All that’s remaining is a vague, sweet memory of those innocent, halcyon days.

It’s almost 30 years since WestJet first got off the ground in our province, an achievement heartily cheered by Albertans, who readily put their collective backsides into the carrier’s seats as it fought a David and Goliath battle with Air Canada.

Ah, but that was then. This is now.

Today it’s in damage control mode across the entire country after an on-again, off-again dispute with its mechanics ended in a nasty, unexpected strike, causing more than 1,000 flights to be cancelled.

This recent episode drove a final stake through whatever loyalty still lingered among those earlier WestJet boosters, most of whom called Alberta home.

Now only the naïve would fall for this ‘we’re all-Westjetters together’ marketing fluff constantly pumped out by the privately-owned company, pretending those early years, where people felt part of something larger than themselves flying this upstart airline, remain part of corporate DNA.

Give us a break. No, we are just a number, one to be handily used and abused by the airline in an industrial dispute with its own staff, just as the mechanics’ union nonchalantly caused havoc with fellow Canadians’ lives to grab a bigger wage slice for members.

So, let’s not pretend otherwise.

Which brings us to a conundrum here in Alberta, because WestJet now reigns supreme if you’re flying Canadian skies.

It isn’t officially agreed – that would risk the itty-bitty wrath of the competition bureau – but there’s little doubt: Air Canada is retreating from the West as WestJet does similar in the East. Less competition and higher fares the outcome.

Oh, and heaven help upstart airlines – those would-be replicas of a 1996 WestJet  - trying to compete. They’re immediately crushed beneath a short-term barrage of cut-price offers on any announced routes.

Then, once such minnows are forced from the game, fares are jacked way up again, especially as Air Canada has left the ring to carry out similar maneuvers in Eastern Canada.

So, when there’s a strike – or threat of a strike – you’ve little option. Suck it up and suffer.

This is what happens in a country that cossets and protects certain industries to the detriment of ordinary Canadians. We see it with banks, telecommunications, the dairy industry and the legal and medical communities. They run fiefdoms with high walls and rip us off at will. Oh, and they donate to political parties.

As to our two major airlines, allowing foreign carriers to fly internally point to point – Calgary to Toronto for example – would bring immediate competition. Maybe passengers would prefer booking with a non-unionized airline and feel more secure they’ll actually board a plane?

But that can’t happen. Yes, British Airways, United, Air France and Lufthansa can fly into and out of Canada, but they can't fly within this country. It’s called cabotage. But really it’s simply a way to stifle competition.

Of course, the government agencies get their due for this protection racket – in the case of airlines it’s the huge amount of fees and taxes levied on passengers. (Examine your bill next time booking a flight to see how obscene this racket has become.)

Yes, once a love affair ends you’re often told there are other fish in the sea. Well, there are other airlines in the sky. If only we were allowed to fly them.

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