WestJet is expanding at a dizzying pace, with plenty more to come.
I had a chance to catch up with one of the airline’s top executives this week in an interview conducted for TravelPulse Canada. We have a story on our website but there was more to the interview that I wanted to get in.
In case you missed it, the Calgary-based airline announced on Monday that it would begin flying from Halifax to Paris on May 31 of this year and from Halifax to London Gatwick on April 29. Both are new flights, although they currently service London Gatwick from other airports in Canada.
The France move is particularly notable, given it’s their first foray into continental Europe. But not their last, you can be sure.
WestJet today (Wednesday) issued press releases to say they’ve called media conferences for tomorrow (Thursday) in both Hamilton, Ont. and Abbotsford, B.C. Both, they said, were called to address their new ultra low-cost airline, Swooop, which is set to start flying this summer.
The press conferences will obviously confirm both airports as hubs for Swoop. Other destinations and scheduling information, and perhaps pricing, also could be revealed on Thursday. Crazy times in the airline biz in Canada, for sure.
Anyway, with all that out of the way here’s what a top WestJet executive told me on Monday.
“We’ve had great success with our flights to Gatwick, Dublin and Glasgow,” said Brian Znotins, WestJet Vice-President, Network Planning, Alliances and Corporate Development. “We’ve wanted to go deeper into Europe and now with the (Boeing 737) Max 8 plane we can do that. We’ve been eager to get at it for a while, so it’s a pretty exciting time.”
“Growing is exciting,” Znotins said in an exclusive interview with TravelPulse Canada. “There was a big challenge after 9/11 so it’s much better to be announcing new flights and new destinations and new airlines and new planes.”
Znotins said WestJet loves all its destinations. But he did concede that Paris has a certain je ne sais quoi.
He also pointed out it’s great for WestJet’s partnership with Air France, which makes it possible for WestJet customers to earn WestJet Rewards on Air France flights (and the other way around). The partnership also makes it easy for WestJet fliers to take Air France flights into exotic destinations around the world, and for Air France guests to fly to great WestJet destinations.
WestJet began flying to Dublin, Ireland in 2014. It since has added flights from Canada’s east coast to London Gatwick and Glasgow.
The airline last year announced a deal to buy up to 20 Boeing 787-9 Dreamliners, with a firm order for 10 to be delivered between the first quarter of next year and December of 2021. They also have option to buy 10 more between 2020 and 2024.
Dreamliners have a range of more than 14,000 kilometres, giving WestJet the ability to serve destinations in the booming Asia market and also in South America and further east into continental Europe. Quite a change for a company that launched itself years ago as a western Canada-based low-cost airline.
Znotins told me that WestJet expects to take delivery of three 787-9 planes early next year and that they should begin flying in the second quarter of 2019. That should mean an announcement of new destinations in the second half of this year.
Not only did WestJet announce the Europe flights, they also announced more than 100 new flights within Canada, to the U.S. and to sun destinations. They’re increasing frequency on their Vancouver-Ottawa service, as well as between Toronto and Montreal, Calgary and Vancouver and between Toronto and Fort Myers, Florida (and many others I don’t have room to mention).
On the North American side, Znotins said WestJet is “really looking to beef up our schedule for premium travellers. We’re now flying between Calgary and Vancouver every hour, which is what travellers really want.”
“One flight a day doesn’t do it for a lot guests,” he told me. “So,we’re trying to make sure we beef up our existing schedules.”
WestJet is soon expected to announce the destinations that will be served by Swoop, the ultra low-cost airline they unveiled last year and that should start flying this summer.
I haven’t been covering the travel and airline business long enough to say it with utmost authority, but WestJet’s expansion into both the overseas market and ultra low-cost market at roughly the same time could be unprecedented in Canadian airline history. Certainly it has caught the attention of analysts and experts, some of whom wonder if it’s perhaps just a bit too much to bite off.
“Yes, we’re going in both directions,” Znotins said. “One of the reasons the airline business is more successful these days is airlines are increasingly able to segment things and add features a la carter. Some guests just want the lowest cost possible. But that range goes all the way to the 787, where guests might want a flat bed because they’ll be working on arrival and want a good night’s sleep on the way to Europe. There’s the whole spectrum, and each of those guests want good value.”
The Swoop destinations should become public knowledge in the next couple weeks. Look for less busy, less expensive airports to make the list, including Abbotsford (versus Vancouver) and Hamilton (rather than Toronto Pearson).
A great time to be in the airline business, for sure. And to be covering it.