WestJet CEO says new routes to Europe partly a grab for Air Canada customers


WestJet Airlines Ltd. plans to launch non-stop service from Calgary to Dublin, Paris and London’s Gatwick Airport using its first three new Boeing 787 Dreamliner aircraft, challenging Air Canada with transatlantic flights that target business passengers and the jet set.

“It’s really important for us to be able to attract what I would call bucket-list travellers, premium leisure travellers and, indeed, a share of business corporate travellers,” WestJet chief executive Ed Sims said in an phone interview from Calgary.

The airline aims to invest roughly $4 billion in new airplanes over the next six or seven years, including 10 Dreamliners, Sims said.

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The new routes reflect not just a grab for more would-be Air Canada passengers, but also an attempt to entice new travellers.

“We think the markets here are being very underserved, so I think there’s an opportunity to attract a new generation of travellers,” Sims said.

“But of course, for outbound Canadians it now gives them a choice,” he added.

The wide-body 320-seat Dreamliners include 16 lie-flat seats in a business cabin as well as 24 premium economy seats, as WestJet continues to recast itself as a large intercontinental carrier.

“It’s a real evolution from WestJet being a clone of Southwest (Airlines) to becoming more and more similar in some ways to Air Canada – but trying to differentiate themselves,” said Karl Moore, an aviation expert at McGill University’s Desautels Faculty of Management.

WestJet is battling with Air Canada on a number of fronts. Its Encore regional service goes up against Air Canada Express and its ultra-low-cost Swoop airline recently launched flights to the U.S. and the Caribbean, in competition with Air Canada’s six-year-old Rouge unit.

On top of a long-range fleet that still dwarfs WestJet’s, Air Canada’s recent deal at the head of a consortium buying the Aeroplan reward program from Aimia Inc. represents another potential advantage WestJet aims to reduce.

The Calgary-based company announced Wednesday it will top up its WestJet Rewards program with a new platinum tier later this year.

“Flying to Europe is not going to be all that dissimilar to Air Canada,” Moore said.

“You’re going to have points, you’re going to have a business class, you’re flying long-haul in brand new planes.”

WestJet remains outside the constellation of major airline alliances, however, which comprise Star Alliance – of which Air Canada is a member – SkyTeam and Oneworld.

“I’ve absolutely changed my behaviour because I can get points flying on non-Air Canada partner airlines,” Moore said. “I don’t think WestJet is as powerful to the global traveller as Air Canada with the Star Alliance.”

Robert Kokonis, president of Toronto-based consulting firm AirTrav Inc., said snatching up brand new, long-range jetliners complete with “a lot of bells and whistles” are “really big” moves, but not enough to lure thousands of high-flying passengers away from Air Canada without an alliance network to top it off.

“I want to be able to earn and redeem points at other airlines. I want that access to a business-class lounge in the Warsaw airport,” Kokonis said.

WestJet’s three new routes from Calgary are slated to start in the spring, with sales kicking off Wednesday.

The Dreamliner will fly daily between Calgary and Gatwick, four times a week to and from Paris and three times a week to and from Dublin.

Additional routes will be announced next year for the next three planes and the following year for the remaining four.

The aircraft boasts higher fuel efficiency, lower maintenance costs and better operational integrity than the older, mid- to long-range Boeing 767 jetliners WestJet currently has.

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