MISSISSAUGA — When it comes to investments, WestJet has made three in particular that have paid off in a big way: its product, its people, and its partners.
All three took centre stage at yesterday’s Travel Partner Awards at WestJet’s hangar in Mississauga, Ont., which Jane Clementino, Director of Sales for WestJet and WestJet Vacations, referred to as the airline’s first-ever hangar party.
After a brief hiatus last year, the awards ceremony returned to much fanfare, with its newest 787 Dreamliner – delivered just two weeks ago – providing a dramatic backdrop to the festivities. Taking flight on Feb. 29, the aircraft marks WestJet’s fourth Dreamliner in its fleet; the other three are in the air, another two are coming, four more are coming next year with 10 more options in the pipeline. This means that within the next 18 months WestJet could have a fleet of nearly 20 787s.
“This,” said Clementino, “is the new WestJet.”
The investment in its 787 fleet represents a major part of WestJet’s five-year plan to become a premium global carrier, which according to Chuck Crowder, VP Sales, Distribution & Contact Centre, has been accelerated by WestJet’s recent acquisition by Onex. The airline now carries 26 million guests annually, boasts a fleet of 180 aircraft and counting, flies 770 flights a day, has a global network of 16 codeshares and 23 interline partners, has grown its loyalty rewards program to include six million members in just 10 years, and has been designated by TripAdvisor as Canada’s top-rated airline for three consecutive years.
All this, said Crowder, could not have been possible without the ongoing support of WestJet’s loyal retail partners. As a former travel agent himself, Crowder knows all too well how difficult it is for agents to “understand the inner workings of every supplier”, and the immeasurable value they bring to WestJet’s bottom line.
“I always say that travel agents are a natural extension of our sales force. I can’t put enough people on the ground to manage the amount of guests that they bring to WestJet,” he told Travelweek. “So what we’re looking to do is partner with the agencies that want to partner with us because I want to help them grow their business as they help grow my business as well.”
As it has become tradition, WestJet honoured its top agent partners yesterday with the following awards:
Top Premium Air Sales, WestJet Airlines 2019
• Platinum partner: American Express Global Business Travel
• Gold partner: Merit Travel Group
• Silver partner: TierOne Travel
• Teal Plus partner: Elite Travel Management
• Specialty Sales partner: TravelBrands
• OTA partner: Expedia
Top Revenue Growth, WestJet Airlines 2019
• Platinum partner: BCD Travel
• Gold partner: Egencia
• Silver partner: YYZ Travel Group
• Teal Plus partner: Costco Travel Canada
• Specialty Sales partner: Agencia Global
• OTA partner: Hopper
Top Revenue Growth, WestJet Vacations 2019
• Platinum partner: Red Label Vacations
• Gold partner: Alberta Motor Association
• Silver partner: The Travel Agent Next Door
• Teal Plus partner: TravelOnly
Here are more updates from WestJet:
Who’s ready to book @WestJet’s new 787 #Dreamliner? It takes off Feb 29, marking yet another milestone in #WestJet’s journey to becoming a premium global carrier. We’ve got more coverage from its Travel Partner Awards 2moro on https://t.co/yvLIguDyas – see who won! #travelagent pic.twitter.com/KA7yAXaQd6
— Travelweek (@TravelweekGroup) February 25, 2020
There she is, in all her glory – @WestJet’s newest 787 #Dreamliner! We’re at #WestJet’s Travel Partner Awards in #Toronto where we’re also getting a sneak peek onboard – stay tuned! #airline #airlines #aviation #travelagent #travelindustry #airplane pic.twitter.com/TLUlbhVKRb
— Travelweek (@TravelweekGroup) February 25, 2020
WestJet’s latest 787 Dreamliner was “years in the making”, said Crowder. Upon launch at the end of the month, it will float between the airline’s 787 markets, including London, Dublin, Paris and Rome (starting May 2), and will also fly between Calgary-Maui and Toronto-Calgary.
Calling it “the perfect aircraft” to sit in one of its three hubs (Toronto, Calgary or Vancouver), the Dreamliner, which can fly 16-17 hours nonstop, allows the airline to fly further afield – and in plenty of style, no less.
“I am very critical of my own product and the company that I work for, and I found that compared to several carriers in business class, this is top notch,” said Crowder. “I pit us against any carrier in the world, especially the Asian carriers that are known for their hospitality and service. That’s how I view what we deliver onboard the new Dreamliner.”
THE ONEX DEAL
Onex Corporation and WestJet signed off on their deal just last December, a transaction valued at $5 billion, including assumed debt. Crowder, who told Travelweek that WestJet has much to learn from the corporation, is excited about the new partnership.
“They’re going to bring a lot of discipline and rigour to what we’ve already done. [The deal] will help elevate and move us to achieve our five-year plan and our goal of becoming a global carrier that much sooner,” he said.
When asked whether having Onex at the reins will put WestJet’s brand and corporate culture at risk, Crowder isn’t at all worried.
“Onex isn’t looking to change anything, they bought us because they believe in our brand, our culture, our leadership team and our five-year plan,” he said. “That what they’re focused on and they don’t want to deviate from that. It’s always hard as you grow to ensure that your culture lives through, but we have such a strong brand and we live it every day within our company, so I don’t see us losing that aspect of it.”
Like many airlines around the world, WestJet has been hit hard by the global grounding of the troubled 737 MAX aircraft. It currently has 13 MAX aircraft in its fleet, all of which have been removed from operations until June 24, 2020.
This has absolutely impacted WestJet’s growth plans, said Crowder.
“Obviously with the MAX aircraft not flying, it’s taken out capacity not just from WestJet but from all carriers around the world. There were some routes that we wanted to fly that we’re unable to fly at this time, and even with flights that we were flying previously, like Halifax into Europe, we haven’t been able to fly those either,” he said. “But we also believe there’s pent-up demand and that once the aircraft comes back up, we can reintroduce it to routes that really need some extra flying.”
Crowder also added that the continued grounding led to the slowdown of WestJet’s aircraft reconfiguration plans, specifically the 2×2 seating plan in premium cabins of the 737.
“We’ve had to slow that work down a little bit but we’ve made some great progress – we have 51 aircraft that are currently configured with the new seating, and now we just need to get the remainder of the aircraft completed, most of which will be done by the end of 2020,” he said.
As part of its global expansion, WestJet has nearly finalized its new joint venture with Delta Air Lines, a transborder deal that will expand their codesharing and increase frequencies and destinations. The Canadian Competition Bureau (CCB) has already granted approval; the U.S. government is expected to approve the venture by the end of April.
Calling Delta a “fantastic partner”, Crowder said: “They are very open and want to help all of their joint venture partners be the best that we can be, and they take a very methodical approach to how we pull together a seamless journey so that it really blurs the lines for our travellers on which carrier they’re flying.”
WestJet is also working heavily with Air France-KLM, having expanded its codeshare relationship last year to provide Canadians greater access from Paris to France, Italy and Greece. And in Asia, Crowder also noted the many airline partners that feed WestJet’s service, especially from Canada’s west coast.
“An interesting fact? With those Asian partners, we are filling 45 737s a day with connecting passengers – that’s a lot of flights,” he said.
WestJet is gearing up for its new nonstop service from Calgary to Rome, its newest destination in Europe, starting May 2. But with the new Dreamliners having further global reach, could destinations beyond North America, the Caribbean and Europe be in the works?
Though Crowder couldn’t confirm which new markets are in the pipeline, he did tell Travelweek that WestJet constantly evaluates routes, including those throughout Asia and South America.
“This is the perfectly sized operating aircraft to service the hubs that we have and the demand that we have,” he said. “It’s a very efficient aircraft to do it with a good cost basis.”
Adding that WestJet’s expansion has been very methodical (“we didn’t just go out and buy 200 new aircraft and throw them into the system”), Crowder said that plenty of research is made behind every decision WestJet makes.
“We do a lot of due diligence and we make data-driven decisions to ensure that we’re adding the right capacity at the right time, to the right markets where Canadians want to go,” he said. “This is why you see us put more capacity into Sun destinations like Mexico and the Caribbean in the winter because that’s where Canadians want to travel.”