Communities across Canada vie for WestJet regional service

The carrier is adding more planes, and regional routes, to its successful schedule
Aaron Hutchins
Come fly to us—please

For one day last month, more than 42,000 Canadians lived in WestJetville. When the clock struck midnight to begin June 29, they were all back in Penticton, B.C., but they got their point across with the name-change stunt announced by Penticton’s mayor. They want WestJet to start flying out of their city—and they aren’t the only ones. Across the country recently, small communities have come together with flash mobs, petitions with more than 10,000 signatures, and earnest videos in an effort to convince the airline to expand to their cities when it rolls out regional service across the country, beginning in the second half of 2013.

WestJet has announced it will add 20 Bombardier Q400s to its fleet next year, with an option for purchasing an extra 25 of the turboprop planes designed for short-haul flights. Not all of the 78-passenger planes will be designated for new routes to smaller cities. The Q400s will also be used to connect major cities where the airline currently flies its Boeing 737s, but doesn’t offer direct links. For example, flying WestJet from Saskatoon to Winnipeg today would require backtracking through Calgary. A direct route on a smaller plane would shorten travel times and open more seats on busier medium-haul flights. The company also plans to adjust the frequency of some existing flights that require fewer seats.

Divvying up the relatively small number of new planes means most of the hopeful cities will remain without WestJet service for the foreseeable future. “For a large country, 45 aircraft, when you start to sprinkle it around, is not a lot,” say Robert Kokonis, president of AirTrav Inc., an aviation consulting firm. But WestJet sees this move as a logical, albeit cautious, expansion. “We think that it’s important to go small first in order to bring traffic into our network,” says company spokesperson Robert Palmer. Another key part of the strategy is giving partner airlines (foreign and U.S. carriers that have lucrative code-sharing agreements with WestJet) “better depth and access to the Canadian market,” adds Kokonis.

There are still risks. Air Canada Jazz and upstart Porter Airlines, which operates mostly in Eastern Canada, already occupy a small market for regional carriers. And the track record for regional airlines is not great. Porter, a private company, said it was profitable last year for the first time since 2007. BA CityFlyer, a subsidiary of British Airways, also struggled to make a profit in its first few years.

WestJet does have an enviable record in an industry known for its ups and downs. It has recorded 28 consecutive quarters of profitability. And while it is straying from its proven recipe of sticking with one model of airplane (the 737), it is still in its comfort zone. “WestJet’s forte has been in short- and medium-haul markets,” Kokonis says. “They’ve got such a distinct corporate culture; if anybody can do it, I think they can.”

So, too, do the representatives from the 32 communities, from every province except Nova Scotia, who met in Calgary on June 28 to pitch WestJet on why they should be added to the current 31-destination Canadian roster. A “handful” will be selected by early 2013 to connect to bases in Calgary or Toronto. That’s not to say the initial list will be the final one, as the airline plans to add more routes as more planes are manufactured. Nonetheless, the competition is fierce and cities are doing all they can to stand out.

“It was very much connecting on a personal level,” says Lori Ackerman, mayor of Fort St. John, B.C., referring to a four-minute video showcasing the town with everyone holding up signs and yelling. “It just makes sense.” Ackerman even busted out a Rick Mercer-style rant, walking the streets with the signature camera tilts during her monologue. “We know that WestJet is going to be doing their own number-crunching, so for us to just stand there and regurgitate, that really would have been shooting ourselves in the foot,” she adds.

The stakes are high for Fort St. John, where flying is “in a word: expensive,” Ackerman says, quoting $1,200 for a round-trip flight to the nearest major hub on a rival airline. Air Canada Jazz and Central Mountain Air are the only two commercial airlines that fly to the city’s North Peace Regional Airport. A lack of competition in these smaller markets has pushed fares to the point that many people opt to drive for hours to a bigger centre nearby and fly with another carrier instead. Those in Fort St. John go to Grande Prairie, Alta., for WestJet service (at least in the non-winter months).

Penticton has good connections westward to Vancouver with Air Canada, says mayor Dan Ashton, “but there’s a leg missing, and that leg is the connection to Calgary.” The hope of connecting more dots on the airline map to the south Okanagan is what encouraged hundreds of locals to join a flash mob at the airport to grab WestJet’s attention.

The airline’s expansion will decrease travel time for many Canadians, but there will be plenty who still have to pack up the car for the long commute.