WestJet to open crew bases in Vancouver and Toronto

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WestJet formed an agreement with pilots in the second quarter to add crew bases in Toronto and Vancouver, says chief executive Gregg Saretsky during a 30 July earnings call.

The additional bases for crews working WestJet's mainline Boeing 737 aircraft are set to be opened by January 2014, says the airline. The airline now operates a single base for crews in Calgary.

The decision to use multiple crew bases will allow the airline to more efficiently schedule its crews, save on staff commuting costs and cut down on travel times, the airline says.

WestJet has set aside Canadian dollar (C$) $5.2 million ($5.03 million) in the quarter for the amount it plans to reimburse employees for relocating to the new bases, shows a regulatory filing.

The decision comes as WestJet is in the midst of implementing a programme to cut annual costs by C$100 million by the end of 2015. The carrier plans to realise cost savings of between C$50 million and C$75 million next year. WestJet has not specified how much in savings it expects to see from adding the bases.

The move to a multiple base setup is one of several changes the company is making that will affect crew, including the introduction of a new premium economy product and the adoption of new rules that allow fewer flight attendants per passenger. The latter change prompted the airline to offer early resignation packages to some employees in June to match its workforce to the new requirements.

"I think it's a good observation that the change that's going on at WestJet is creating a certain level of uncertainty," says the airline's chief executive Gregg Saretsky during the earnings call. He cited those changes, adding: "Nevertheless, we're working hard to try and get that uncertainty behind us as quickly as possible and I expect we'll see things calm down."

In May, WestJet received approval from Air Canada to change the ratio of flight attendants from one per every 40 passengers on board to one for every 50 passengers. The carrier has said that the new ratio brings it in line with standards in the USA and other countries.

Air Canada has also applied for the exemption, prompting opposition by its flight attendants represented by the Canadian Union of Public Employees. In July, the union asked the airline to withdraw its application based on its view that the new ratio could negatively impact safety. When Transport Canada first announced that WestJet gained the exemption in May, Canada's transport minster Denis Lebel said that "the safety of Canadians is Transport Canada's top priority."

WestJet says that it has reached an agreement with its pilots to implement the multi-base system, but notes that this is just one part of a larger pilot contract that it is negotiating with its pilots. Conversations about pay rates, work rules and how additional aircraft types could affect the fleet are still ongoing, says WestJet. The pilot group negotiated its current four-year contract in 2009.