Winter Is Coming is a new PAX series that offers a glimpse into the war rooms of Canada’s leading travel companies as the busy winter travel season takes flight. Stay tuned for exclusive interviews with industry movers, shakers and decision-makers as we dissect their future plans for Canada’s travel trade.
When autumn rolled in, WestJet decided it was high time to re-connect with Canada’s travel trade.
A series of fall expos were held in British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario, giving travel agents exclusive access to the airline’s latest product updates and vision for the future.
“It was great way for us to showcase what we’re doing as a company and get feedback on what we can do better,” Charles (Chuck) Crowder, vice-president of sales and distribution at WestJet told PAX in a telephone interview.
Crowder, who started his role at WestJet last April, has a simple philosophy: travel agents are “a natural extension” of WestJet’s sales force because “we can’t get to all the guests that they can.”
“They’re a great partner of ours,” said Crowder, who, prior to joining WestJet, was vice-president of global accounts and cross-border sales at Avis Budget Group.
Now, winter is coming, and those WestJet roadshows for travel agents were held for good reasons.
The past 12 months have been a transformative period for the Calgary-based airline, which has soared to new heights with the arrival of its first-ever collection of Boeing 787-9 Dreamliners.
The 320-seat aircraft represents a new era for WestJet as it enhances, evolves and expands into a global network carrier that offers longer-range flying, as well as re-imagined Economy, Premium and Business cabins.
The Dreamliner's first-ever Business cabins, notably, feature all-aisle-access, lie-flat seats with on-demand dining and entertainment.
“We’re putting a lot of focus on building partnerships with corporate travel and premium travellers,” Crowder told PAX.
WestJet officially launched its Dreamliner service between Calgary and London, Gatwick last April. A Calgary-Paris service proceeded in May, followed by a Calgary-Dublin service in June.
Since then, the new Dreamliner has been inserted into a variety of other WestJet routes, such as Calgary-Toronto, Toronto-London (Gatwick), Calgary-Maui, and up-and-coming routes, such as Vancouver-London (April 2020) and Calgary-Rome (May 2020).
WestJet will receive three additional Boeing Dreamliners in 2020 bringing the airline's total up to 20.
What’s more is that WestJet also has a pending joint-venture with Delta, which “will be key for us,” said Crowder. “Especially for our corporate partners.”
What does this mean for the trade?
“It opens up opportunities to sell out of the U.S., build our corporate agreements and give our travel trade partners more to sell,” Crowder said.
There’s an even bigger deal bubbling beneath all of this – the completion of WestJet’s sale to Onex Corp, a $3.5 billion transaction that made headlines in May of this year.
That transaction, which has been given the green light by the Canadian Competition Bureau, is expected to close, officially, by the end of this year.
In what could be perceived as a major industry shake-up, Onex’s acquisition of WestJet won’t change the way the airline conducts business all that much, Crowder said.
“The senior leadership will not change with this deal, no jobs will be lost,” he said. “They really believe in what our five-year plan is.”
Commitment to sustainability
Part of that five-year plan is a renewed commitment to investing in low-carbon air travel.
WestJet traces this initiative back to 2000 when it replaced its old fleet of aging Boeing 737-200s with new Boeing 737 Next-Generation aircraft, which were anywhere between 15 to 30 per cent more fuel efficient.
The airline claims it has improved its fuel efficiency by 50 per cent since 2000, having invested more than $5.6 billion in fuel efficient aircraft since that time.
This includes retrofitting its 737-700 and 800-series aircraft with winglets in 2003 (a move that reduced fuel consumption by up to 2.7 per cent per flight, the airline states).
Since then, all new aircraft at WestJet include pre-installed winglets to maximize fuel efficiency.
The airline was also one of the first in Canada to integrate required navigation performance (RNP) technology into its flight operations back in 2004.
RNP is a technology that uses satellites and on-board avionic systems to allow aircraft to operate in a more efficient way as it flies to and from airports.
“Using fuel-efficient aircraft is our best hedge against rising fuel costs and improves our carbon footprint,” Crowder stated.
WestJet has also begun to phase out plastic stir-sticks onboard its fleet (one of the youngest fleets in North America), with a target to eliminate single-use plastics from onboard catering by 2023, Crowder confirmed.
Serving customers, not cattle
Reaffirming its commitment to customer service has also been key to WestJet’s strategy as of late.
Never a stranger to releasing impactful viral videos, WestJet showcased its approach to customer service last month with the release of a fun video featuring cows wandering around an airport in the wake of a series of delayed and cancelled flights while the ‘80s bop “Blue Monday” by New Order plays in the background.
The “mooo-vie,” so to speak, was produced to demonstrate how WestJet treats people like people (as opposed to a herd of cows).
“We don’t overbook, which is different from many airlines,” Crowder said.
Keeping customers in the loop, too, plays into WestJet's customer strategy, as demonstrated earlier this month when the airline revealed that it's fleet of Boeing MAX 8 aircraft will remain grounded until at least Feb. 4, 2020, a decision that led to the temporary adjustment of several flights (all of which can be viewed here).
Bracing for winter
The cow video was released just as Canadians prepare for the busy winter travel season, which routinely presents challenges in the aviation world, from cancellations caused by snowstorms to de-icing delays.
What makes a Canadian airline successful in winter is measured by how a company plans for the right schedules and products to meet the demand, Crowder said.
“Canadians love to travel when the weather changes,” Crowder said, “and it’s important to pay attention to the amount of work that goes into ensuring a safe airline for both our employees and customers. We have a solid business plan in place to ensure that we’re able to take care of our guests if something goes wrong.”
And you can bet Canada’s travel trade will play a pivotal role in that equation.
“I want [travel agents] to be able to sell, with confidence, the new products and services we’re bringing on board, and I look forward to working with them to get feedback on how to improve that guest experience,” Crowder told PAX. “I’m so excited to work with my team and our trade partners in promoting all the good things we're doing.”
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