WestJet takes off on the world stage
(Photo above: Chuck Crowder, Vice President of Sales & Distribution, WestJet)
When asked what misconceptions travellers have about WestJet, Chuck Crowder, Vice President of Sales & Distribution, points to the lingering image of its past, as the airline takes off on a transformation towards being a premium global carrier.
“We’ve just embarked on our journey to become a global carrier and that’s really building up our three hubs of Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver and rebranding ourselves to this premium carrier,” he told Canadian Travel Press. “I think some people still see us as this low-cost leisure carrier, and, while we’re very proud of that heritage of where we started, we really now are turning into that premium brand that offers quality products and services across multiple disciplines and really focusing on corporate travel as well.”
As part of the evolution, WestJet is taking hold of 10 Boeing 787 Dreamliners, four of which have already been delivered, with the option for an additional 10 aircrafts further down the line.
“This is really laying the foundation that helps change us from a kind of point-to-point low-cost carrier that services a lot of cities in Canada and sun destinations,” he said. “Now to take us to the world stage and be a global airline that really is focused on the premium traveller and expansion across the globe.”
New 2×2 seating is being introduced across the premium cabins in WestJet’s 737 fleet, and business class cabins with lie-flat beds, dining on demand, and turndown services, which include lavender mist-scented pillows, are featured on the Dreamliners.
“The introduction last year of the 787s allows us now to expand our reach globally, as we take on more of the 787 Dreamliners and bring on new destinations around the world,” he said. “We also added the business class cabin, and a premium economy cabin, to the 787s so you can now really view us as that global airline, that our brand really stacks up to a lot of other global carriers, especially the Asian carriers as well. I feel our brand and products and services are top notch.”
The company currently has 180 aircraft (and counting) across 110 destinations and over 25 countries.
“We’ve just announced serving Calgary to Rome with the 787 as of May 2,” he said. “Over the years since 2014, we’ve continually added new countries, new destinations and will continue to expand that further and further.”
As for the travel trade, Crowder assured CTP they will play a pivotal role in its expansion.
“I started out on the travel agency side, so that is near and dear to my heart because I know the value that they can drive,” he said. “I say travel agents are the natural extension of our sales force because I can’t put enough people on the street to manage all the guests, so we need to really work with partners who want to partner with us because my goal is to grow their business, which, in turn, will grow my business.”
Addressing its recent acquisition by Onex, which was valued at $5 billion, Crowder stressed that the airline wouldn’t lose its identity.
“Just because we have a new owner, our culture is not changing.
We’re still caring from the heart, and we’re going to continue to do that.”
Meanwhile, WestJet’s Director of Agency Sales Jane Clementino said the airline “upped its game” by doubling the size of its agency sales and support team with new BDMs and a commercial account manager.
“We are investing in technology, we are investing in products and services, we are investing in planes, but we are also investing in people to support the trade,” she noted. “Since last year, my team has doubled in size. Why’d it double in size? Because we need you, we need to be more responsive, we need more face time, we need more partnerships, we need more strategies, and we need more of your sales.”
Overall, she said WestJet is ushering in a new era.
“In the next 18 months, we could have a fleet of almost twenty 787s, so pretty exciting stuff,” she said. “This is the new WestJet.”
The aircraft is set for its London, Dublin, Paris and Rome routes, as well as between Calgary to Maui and Toronto to Calgary. The business class cabin features pods with lie-flat seats and direct aisle access, fully extendable privacy screens, a seat pitch of 46 inches and a seat width of 22 inches, and 18.5-inch touch screen monitors with interactive controls.
In terms of how WestJet is set to face challenges, including the ongoing issues surrounding COVID-19, he said they are very disciplined with business decisions.
“The airline industry, we’ve been faced with so many challenges over the years, if you think of what happened, Sept. 11, the bird flu, economic downturns, it’s really being disciplined in how we manage our business, and how we add capacity or take capacity out of the marketplace,” he said. “We do a lot of data-driven decisions to ensure that we have the right aircraft and the right fleet size at the right time. There’s a lot of science behind it, but that’s what’s allowed us to have 88 profitable quarters since our beginning. You’ll continue to see that with Onex and how disciplined we are with the business.”
Another challenge has been the grounding of the 737 MAX aircraft, of which they have 13. Currently on hold from scheduled operations through June 24, he said the aircraft is part of its global expansion plans.
“Unfortunately, they’re not flying right now, but that aircraft will allow us to expand in markets that need an aircraft that can fly a longer length of haul, but what we call a thin route because they don’t have a lot of passenger demand, but it drives a lot of value for our guests,” he said. “And then the 787 is the perfect aircraft, it can fly well beyond 17 hours non-stop, and it’s positioned very well out of one of our three hubs to service all of the international markets.”
Although they are still waiting on approval for its Delta joint venture agreement with the US government, which will see an expanded network of codeshares across North America, he hopes it will be in place by the end of April.
“We can’t service every city, so our partnership through Delta and any future joint venture partners really allows us to expand our reach across the globe because we can now flow passengers between one another; and we are setting up systems and processes in place, so that it’s a seamless guest journey so that what you’ve come to expect and love on WestJet, you will see across all of our partners,” he said. “A lot of work is being done today to ensure the ease and transition, so it’s a seamless journey for our mutual guests among both carriers.”
Another key partnership is with Air France – KLM with codeshares beyond Paris to Germany, Italy and Western Europe.
Amidst the development, WestJet is also launching its first proprietary flagship lounge at the Calgary International Airport (YYC).
“We’ve talked about that we want to open one in Vancouver and Toronto, as well, and we’re looking to source real estate for that,” he said.
Once complete, the Canadian-inspired space will be a place for guests to work, relax, rejuvenate and enjoy local food and beverage.
Enhancements are also being made to the WestJet app, and the airline’s AI development.
“Our digital transformation is to enhance our guests’ journey,” he said. “If I think about that in conjunction with the travel trade, it’s not to pull guests from booking with their travel agency to WestJet.com, it’s really to enhance their journey after they’ve made the guest reservation. When they get to the airport, the AI intelligence with our lounge, we need to understand and know who our guests are, so that we can think of ways to serve up different content that may be a benefit to you.”
Meanwhile, during online check in, it’s about being able to purchase baggage, do seat assignments, select upgrades to premium travel, get lounge access, track bags, and enhance their experience at the airport, he said.
“Knowing when their flights are boarding so we can push out information, so people aren’t stressed about where they need to be, and it allows them to travel through the airport with a little bit more ease,” he added.
As for his current favourite WestJet destination, Crowder picked Roatán because he recently got back from Honduras.
“It’s a fantastic destination. It is more like the Caribbean than Central America, but it’s still uninhabited so to speak, it’s not built up like other Caribbean islands,” he explained.
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