WestJet Airlines says it will emerge from the pandemic with a renewed focus on Western Canada, boosting its flight schedule in its backyard while flying less often within the eastern parts of the country.
The changes are part of the Calgary-based airline’s strategic plan unveiled on Thursday by chief executive officer Alexis von Hoensbroech, who joined WestJet in February.
Mr. von Hoensbroech said in an interview that a review of WestJet’s operations yielded a strategy with three main areas of focus: the West, leisure travel in all markets, and affordability. None is new, he said, but for Canada’s second-largest airline, the pandemic that grounded most of the world’s passenger jets underlined the need to ensure it is making the right moves as demand recovers.
“We think that the West has more room for growth for us than the East,” Mr. von Hoensbroech said.
Other parts of the plan include strengthening business and holiday travel in western Canada. WestJet’s proposed purchase of Sunwing’s airline and vacation divisions, announced in March, is awaiting regulatory approval.
Pandemic restrictions are easing for the aviation world, but the industry must also deal with the effects of Russia’s war on Ukraine, economic uncertainty, and high prices for fuel. Staffing shortages at some major airports in Canada and in London and Amsterdam are hurdles to a smooth return to more normal flows of passenger jets and customers.
WestJet will reduce the number of flights within Eastern Canada, including the highly competitive Toronto-to-Montreal route, and boost its schedule and capacity in its western stronghold, Mr. von Hoensbroech said, adding that WestJet plans to add more flights connecting west and east.
“We are called WestJet,” Mr. von Hoensbroech said. “So it’s the West, that’s where we’re strong and we think we can do more for the West.”
Jacques Roy, a transportation professor at HEC Montreal, said WestJet is investing in its traditional territory in the face of more competition from low-cost rivals Lynx Air and Flair Airlines. “It’s a question of concentrating on where they are stronger,” Prof. Roy said. He added that WestJet’s lack of success in Montreal and Atlantic Canada is likely behind the moves.
The airline will also reshape its fleet, adding more narrow-body planes, including new Boeing 737 Max jets, and halt the addition of wide-body 787 Dreamliners.
Mr. von Hoensbroech said WestJet will fly its existing 787s in the West. The airline will receive 15 new 737s this year, bringing its Max fleet to more than 30. The 47-plane De Havilland Q400 regional fleet that flies in Ontario and Quebec will be reduced by 10 or 15 planes, and will move to Western Canada. The company is also in negotiations for a “substantial” number of narrow-body aircraft, Mr. von Hoensbroech said, declining to elaborate.
WestJet said the network changes announced on Thursday will be implemented by the summer of 2023.
WestJet began in Calgary in 1994 as a scrappy alternative to Air Canada AC-T, the dominant national airline. It has expanded to other parts of the country, and added overseas routes as it looked to compete directly with Air Canada in higher-priced markets. After a few stumbles blamed on a rising cost structure and tough competition, then-publicly traded WestJet agreed to a takeover by Gerry Schwartz’s Onex Corp. in 2019 for $3.5-billion.
Mr. von Hoensbroech, a German who previously ran Austrian Airlines, said WestJet is on solid footing compared to many of its peers. It did not accept a government bailout, nor take on new debt to survive.
However, bottlenecks due to security and customs staffing at Toronto Pearson Airport and other major hubs and high fuel prices are hampering the aviation recovery, even though WestJet and other airlines are operating at less than usual capacity.
When asked if airfares have risen as a result of the spike in the price of jet fuel, Mr. von Hoensbroech declined to be specific. “Some prices went up, some prices went down,” he said. “We have seen both trends. Every business has to make sure that it recovers its costs in the long run. It’s something that airlines are struggling with.”
WestJet does not add a fuel surcharge to ticket prices, he said, “at this point in time.”
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