TORONTO — With a leaner but still profitable Q3 under its belt, WestJet’s VP of Marketing Communications Richard Bartrem says the airline is gearing up to welcome its first three new 787 Dreamliner aircraft in early 2019 – and more in 2020 and 2021, with news of new long-haul routes no doubt coming too.
Rising fuel costs and a highly competitive market put a dent in WestJet’s Q3 earnings but the carrier still managed to post net earnings of $45.9 million, a return to profitability compared to the one-off Q2, a blip in the company’s run of 52 consecutive profitable quarters.
Speaking to Travelweek this morning on a trip into Toronto, Bartrem says WestJet is well into its transformation from its start-up days as a low-cost carrier, to its new positioning as a full service global carrier.
It’s been 22 years since WestJet took to the skies as a fledgling upstart with a can-do attitude, down-to-earth corporate culture and fun, friendly service.
The trick now is to grow the airline and become “more relevant to more consumers”, and to go after premium travellers with its Business Class product, without alienating its core market and founding ethos, says Bartrem.
Some have suggested that WestJet has left its core values on the runway as it takes off for international status.
But there’s truth to the maxim ‘innovate or die’ and WestJet is focused on positioning itself for future growth amid increasing competition from LCCs, ULCCs and mainline carriers, and soaring fuel costs.
“To pine for the days of Wardair is frankly not relevant,” says Bartrem. “It’s lovely to say ‘remember when’ … but if that model was sustainable then they would still be in business.”
WestJet’s growth strategy kicked into high gear in the past few years with new service to Europe, including new addition Barcelona announced last week, with seasonal flights between Toronto and Barcelona starting in May 2019.
For summer 2019 WestJet will operate London (Gatwick) service from Vancouver, Edmonton, Winnipeg and Toronto, service from Halifax to Glasgow, London and Paris, and service between St. John’s and Dublin.
The news about the new Barcelona flights comes on the heels of WestJet’s recent announcement of its first 787 Dreamliner routes to Paris, London (Gatwick) and Dublin from Calgary.
The 787s are a critical part of WestJet’s expansion strategy, says Bartrem.
Three of the new aircraft will be introduced in quick succession in the new year, with one plane delivered in January, followed by a second in February and a third in March.
More 787s are on the way for 2020 and 2021.
Asked if WestJet is looking at any non-Europe long-haul routes for its 787s – could Asia be a possibility? – Bartrem said getting familiar with the 787s is the first priority. Going into a new market like Asia means new countries, airports, languages, culture and more. “Getting to know the 787s in markets we already know is the smart move.”
Agents will have to wait and see what the airline has up its sleeve in terms of destinations, but back in 2015 WestJet was crunching the numbers on some 70 potential worldwide destinations, including more cities in Europe (Amsterdam and Rome were top contenders) as well as destinations in the South Pacific.
WestJet is also focusing its attention on the revamping of its 737 fleet to 737 MAX, a rollout that will continue over the next 18 to 24 months. “Our new premium cabin at the front of the plane is exciting news for travel agents,” says Bartrem. “Now they can sell our premium product.”
WestJet is also intent on bringing a fresh take on everything from its lounges to its digital experience, including the launch of its AI-powered chatbot on Facebook Messenger earlier this summer.
As good as WestJet’s website is, it can’t do everything, and agents are still a crucial factor in the airline’s success, says Bartrem. When WestJet announced its new 787 service to Europe, it also announced a special 12% incentive for business class bookings.
With the three new 787s coming in 2019, “we’ll have half a million seats on those planes and we’ll be looking to our agent partners to help us sell them.”
Agents are a major part of WestJet’s success, past and future, he added. “Especially in the start up days, the early days, we couldn’t have done it without the agent community.”