“This is a new WestJet,” Richard Bartrem, vice president of marketing communications at WestJet told PAX.
Bartrem and other notable WestJetters shared key insights into the airline’s strategy for 2019 and beyond last Thursday night (Dec. 13) at an exclusive soirée at The Carlu in downtown Toronto.
The holiday gathering welcomed close to 300 of WestJet’s top-selling travel agents, preferred partners and select staff into an elegant space illuminated by light green and blue lighting – a nod to WestJet’s corporate colours.
At the forefront of the night’s presentation, entitled “The Future Is Bright,” was WestJet’s new baby – the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, WestJet’s first, which will be in operation by February 2019 (three to start with more in 2020 and 2021).
On introducing the stylish new aircraft, Bartrem said it will be “as big as an event as it was launching the airline in the first place.”
“We’re pivoting to becoming a global full-service carrier,” Bartrem told PAX, referencing the airline’s humble beginnings as a low-cost domestic airline that launched in 1996 to its position today, now operating 168 aircraft and flying to more than 100 destinations in 21 countries.
FROM LOW-COST CARRIER TO LUXURY AIRLINE
To give event attendees a true feel of WestJet’s new Dreamliner, sample seats from all three cabins – economy, premium economy and business class (another WestJet first) – were installed all throughout the room.
One of the major differences passengers will notice when flying WestJet’s new 787 Dreamliner is that “everyone will be treated with the utmost respect,” regardless of what cabin they’re flying in, Jane Clementino, WestJet’s director of agency sales, told PAX.
For example: every passenger flying international on WestJet’s 787 Dreamliner will receive complimentary meal and beverage service, a pillow, a blanket and headphones.
Also, no more shades: the windows are dimmable at the touch of a button.
WestJet’s innovative business pods on the 787 will focus on refined luxury and privacy – when the aircraft launches, WestJet noted, it will be the only airline in Canada to offer fully extendable privacy screens between the centre of the pods.
“[The 787 Dreamliner] is really going to change the way people think of WestJet,” Clementino told PAX.
BOUNCING BACK AFTER A TOUGH YEAR
“This year has been a challenging year for us at WestJet,” Tim Croyle, executive vice president, commercial at WestJet, told attendees.
Changes in leadership, threats of strike, high-fuel prices and stiff competition were all contributors, Croyle said before extending a sincere thanks to the travel trade for “advocating for us and restoring confidence” in the airline’s brand.
This year saw WestJet’s first money-losing quarter in 13 years. While the airline’s total revenue for the third quarter of 2018 was $1.26 billion – up from $1.21 billion reported this time last year – total earnings for the quarter were $45.9 million, compared to earnings of $135.9 million reported in the third quarter of 2017.
Part of that impact was due to the rising price of fuel throughout the year, climbing from 62 cents in 2017 to 85 cents per litre this year, a jump of more than 37 per cent year-over-year.
“We’ve since re-bounced and we believe we’re on the way to a recovery,” Mr. Bartrem told PAX.
NEW REWARDS PROGRAM & KEY PARTNERSHIPS
Next year will see the introduction of a new tier in the WestJet Rewards program for frequent flyers with the launch of Platinum. The new tier, which will have an $8,000 qualifying spend, will offer members an eight per cent earn rate for WestJet dollars on each booking and more premium services at the airport, including priority check-in, boarding and screening, lounge access and a dedicated concierge help line.
WestJet’s new partnerships are also noteworthy: an application for a transborder joint venture with Delta is currently pending approval by the Canadian and U.S. governments, while WestJet will also expand its partnership with Australian carrier Qantas.
WestJet’s new partnerships are “going to change our world on the transporter side of things,” Clementino told PAX.
MAKE WAY FOR A DIGITAL MAKEOVER
Alfredo Tan, WestJet’s chief digital and innovation officer, confirmed that every digital platform at WestJet, from its homepage to its mobile functions, will be rebuilt in 2019.
Treating it’s testing operations “like a science lab,” Tan said he and his team are “rethinking the guest journey, from a digital perspective.”
This includes a significant investment in artificial intelligence (AI): not so much in regards to “robots and terminators,” but more so about “applying machine learning to solving business problems,” Tan told guests.
Case in point: WestJet launched its first conversational AI chatbot on Facebook Messenger, Juliet, last August. Named after WestJet’s first aircraft, the chatbot is like a personal digital travel assistant that recommends destinations based on the user’s interests.
Tan said Juliet has been able to manage guest requests 51 per cent of the time without referring the user to a human.
Juliet’s accuracy will continue to grow as more testing is done. Tan also hinted that facial recognition technology within WestJet’s AI offerings is also coming, something passengers can look forward to very soon.
Richard Bartrem compared WestJet’s evolution to the likes of a human lifecycle:
“If you think about WestJet being 22-years-old now, almost 23…When we were in our early teens, we kind of acted like we were in our early teens. Now, as we’re into our early ’20s, we’ve matured,” Bartrem told PAX.
"We still have the same personality, but a different reflection of that personality by virtue of the products and services that we will be offering," Bartrem said.