Hike service

WestJet announces return to near pre-pandemic service levels



Expect to see more WestJet aircraft arriving and departing from Winnipeg.

The Calgary-based airline is preparing to resume service levels close to pre-pandemic levels, WestJet said Monday. Flights to Winnipeg are expected to reach 91 per cent of 2019 activity this summer, according to chief commercial officer John Weatherill.

Scheduled services will reach 84% of pre-COVID levels on WestJet’s network, Weatherill told the Free press after a press conference at Winnipeg’s Richardson International Airport.

“We expect new variants to continue to emerge, and we expect there to be ups and downs in the recovery,” Weatherill said. “But we think, generally speaking, the recovery trend has now set in.”

At its slowest, WestJet sent 40 flights a day – a fraction of its pre-pandemic average of more than 700 flights a day.

“We have suspended service to many critical destinations,” Weatherill said at the press conference. “The past two years have been incredibly challenging for our business.”

The airline’s goal is to double current weekly departures – from 76 today to nearly 170 – by August, he said.

WestJet’s summer schedule features nonstop flights from Winnipeg to 14 destinations, including Halifax, Ottawa, Kelowna and Las Vegas. There will be six daily flights from Winnipeg to Calgary, WestJet’s global hub. Five more will fly daily to Toronto and three daily to Vancouver.

The airline – which includes WestJet, WestJet Encore and Swoop – will increase flights to Regina, Saskatoon and Thunder Bay, Weatherill said.

The announcement marks a “light…at the end of the tunnel,” according to Nick Hays, CEO of the Winnipeg Airports Authority.

“It’s definitely good news,” he said. “We are certainly seeing, this summer and beyond, a very big increase (in travel plans). It’s absolutely going in the right direction, and I hope to see the same.”

Soaring oil prices will likely drive up the price of airline tickets.

“Fuel is a significant cost for any airline, and we’re not excluded from it,” Weatherill said. “We are evaluating and monitoring what this means in the long term.”

WestJet is not yet offsetting fuel prices with surcharges, but a surcharge is not out of the question, Weatherill said Monday.

“I think peak summer is going to be a bit more expensive, so I would encourage anyone planning to travel this summer to book sooner rather than later,” he said, noting that fuel and demand play a role.


RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Winnipeg Airports Authority President and CEO Nick Hays said WestJet’s announcement on Monday is “really good news” and marks a “light at the end of the tunnel.”

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RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Winnipeg Airports Authority President and CEO Nick Hays said WestJet’s announcement on Monday is “really good news” and marks a “light at the end of the tunnel.”

More flights to Winnipeg are essential for the province’s hard-hit tourism sector, said Linda Whitfield, Travel Manitoba’s vice-president of communications and stakeholder engagement.

The industry was on track for $2.2 billion in annual revenue by 2022 before COVID-19 hit, Whitfield said. Now, a tourism strategy team including Travel Manitoba, the province and the Manitoba Chambers of Commerce aims to increase visitor spending to $2.5 billion by 2030.

“WestJet’s return to pre-pandemic flight numbers is welcome news in our efforts to meet our strategy targets,” Whitfield said.

Removing federal public health measures, such as mandatory COVID-19 testing before re-entering Canada, is a priority for the airline industry to return to normal operations.

“Our view is that the science supports that (testing) can be done away with, especially in an industry where everyone working in travel is fully vaccinated,” Weatherill said.

The Winnipeg Airports Authority sang a similar tune last week.

“Testing remains a barrier to getting people moving again,” Tyler MacAfee, vice president of communications with the authority, wrote in an email. “We have seen an increase in travel each time the restrictions have been reduced.

WestJet is also preparing to offer a wider range of flights from Winnipeg, if its proposed acquisition of Sunwing is accepted.

On March 2, Westjet announced plans to return to the warm weather mark. Both Transport Canada and the Commissioner of Competition must review the agreement and report their findings to the Minister of Transport, who makes the final decision.

“We believe we will have many opportunities to provide increased service,” Weatherill said.

That could mean more jobs for Manitobans, he added. Sunwing jets, which are registered in Europe, are operated by European pilots, flight attendants and technicians. The Canadians could take those positions, Weatherill said Monday.

The airline is struggling to hire staff as it ramps up operations.

“I think that’s one of the things that surprised us was how difficult it would be to bring frontline workers back,” Weatherill said. “That’s why we’re building back gradually over time rather than in one big leap.”

The company has 2,300 employees in Manitoba, he said. It currently employs 8,490 workers in total, down from around 14,000 in 2019, according to The Canadian Press.

WestJet generates $63 million annually in tourism spending in Manitoba and generates half a billion dollars in the economy, Weatherill said.

“Air connectivity is the foundation of Manitoba’s long-term recovery,” said Premier Heather Stefanson, who attended Monday’s news conference. “It is essential to stimulate business, investment and tourism.”

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Gabrielle Piche

Gabrielle Piche
Journalist

Gabby is a huge fan of people, writing and learning. She graduated from Red River College’s Creative Communications program in the spring of 2020.