Canada’s second-largest airline, WestJet, has cancelled more than 400 flights, affecting nearly 50,000 passengers after the maintenance workers’ union announced it was going on strike

TORONTO — WestJet, Canada’s second-largest airline, has cancelled 407 flights, affecting 49,000 passengers. The maintenance workers’ union has announced a strike.

The Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association said its members began striking Friday night because the airline’s “unwillingness to negotiate with the union” made it unavoidable.

The surprise strike, which affected international and domestic flights, came after the federal government issued a ministerial order for binding arbitration on Thursday, following two weeks of turbulent discussions with the union over a new deal.

WestJet said it will continue to park planes through Sunday for the long weekend that ends with Canada Day on Monday. The airline has about 200 planes and says it will be operating about 30 by Sunday evening.

The airline’s CEO, Alexis von Hoensbroech, placed the blame for the situation squarely on what he called a “rogue union from the US” trying to gain a foothold in Canada.

Von Hoensbroech said that, as far as the airline was concerned, negotiations with the union had ended when the government referred the dispute to binding arbitration.

“This makes a strike completely absurd, because the reason you have a strike in the first place is because you have to put pressure on the negotiating table,” he said. “If there is no negotiating table, there is no point, there should be no strike.”

He added that the union had rejected a contract offer that would have made the airline’s mechanics among the “highest paid in the country.”

In an update to its members, the union’s negotiating committee pointed to an order from the Canada Industrial Relations Board, which does not explicitly prohibit strikes or lockouts while the arbitration panel is acting.

Sean McVeigh, a WestJet aircraft maintenance technician who protested Saturday at Toronto Pearson International Airport’s Terminal 3, said the strike is an attempt to force the airline to return to a “respectful negotiation.”

McVeigh said the union regrets the inconvenience caused to passengers.

“However, the reason they (passengers) may have missed a flight or had to cancel is because WestJet is not sitting down and negotiating respectfully,” he said along with about 20 others on the picket line.

“We take on a lot of responsibility and just want to be financially valued,” he said.

WestJet passengers Samin Sahan and Samee Jan told Pearson they planned to leave Saturday with family members for a trip to Calgary that had been planned for six to eight months.

Sahan said they had received emails earlier in the day saying their flight had been rescheduled for Monday, but they went to the terminal anyway. He said their attempts to get clarification, combined with the strike, had left their travel plans up in the air.

“This inactivity is hurting many people, both their own businesses and their customers, who will likely never be their customers again,” Sahan said.

Jan called the situation ‘sad’.