WestJet CEO speaks to possibility of long-haul plans

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WestJet is still considering entering the long-haul market in the future, but developing a strategy to acquire widebodies is not something the airline is spending much time on at the moment, says the Canadian airline’s president and chief executive Gregg Saretsky.

“Certainly looking at the strength of the North Atlantic market over the last couple of summers, one can only salivate at the opportunity to get a piece of that,” he says while addressing investors on 18 September at the CIBC World Markets Eastern Institutional Investor Conference in Montreal. “But we’re being very focused on the things that we need to do right now, and that is to make success of WestJet Encore.”

WestJet’s regional carrier Encore launched in June with a fleet of Bombardier Dash 8 Q400 turboprops, and is taking delivery of new aircraft at a rate of one per month. The carrier now has four aircraft in its fleet and will add an additional 16 through 2015. The airline also has options for 25 additional aircraft.

Saretsky says that while he sees flying long-haul routes to Asia or Europe eventually making sense for the carrier to pursue, the airline is taking into consideration that new widebody models will not be available for another three to five years in the future.

“I wouldn’t expect that the market should anticipate WestJet placing an order for widebodies and seeing those in service any time in the next three to five years,” he says. He adds that WestJet could have the flexibility to take on aircraft sooner if it purchases them from lessors.

Even though WestJet’s plans for long-haul service remain unclear, the carrier has made it a point to add larger aircraft through the years when making decisions to renew its 737 narrowbody fleet, which now consists of 105 aircraft made up of the -600, -700 and -800 variants.

The desire to upgauge to larger aircraft with more seats has caused WestJet to take exclusively take delivery of the 174-seat 737-800 instead of the 136-seat -700 model, which the carrier stopped taking delivery of three years ago, Saretsky points out.

The size of the 737 Max contributed to WestJet’s decision to maintain the 737 type as it updates its fleet, instead of ordering the CSeries, says Saretsky during the conference. The carrier signed a letter of intent with Boeing at the end of August to order 65 of the aircraft type, with deliveries beginning in 2017.

“When I compare [the Max] to the CSeries, the CSeries is much smaller, and the configuration that one of our domestic competitors is choosing, its 107 seats,” says Saretsky, referring to Porter Airlines’ conditional order for the Bombardier CS100. “It could be as big as 140 or 150 if you go to a very tight, 29in pitch, but that’s much smaller than the aircraft we’re looking for right now,” he says.

Lower costs for training maintenance employees, pilots and flight attendants was another benefit of staying with the 737 type instead of switching to another aircraft model, he says.