Calgary-based Westjet is turning 20 during a serious economic downturn in Alberta.

But president and CEO Gregg Saretsky says the company can cope with the drop in business in its home province.

"Some of the capacity that was previously flying around Alberta is now going to the east and to the west," he said.

Saretsky also says the company prides itself on never having laid off employees, although it has resorted to asking for voluntary departures when business is slow.

He noted that WestJet is expanding service to Europe and will start flights to Great Britain on wide-body aircraft from six Canadian cities in May.

The little airline that could

On leap day in 1996, WestJet took a giant leap into the Canadian airline market.

It parked its fleet of two planes (that's right, just two) on the Calgary airport tarmac and offered air travel that was, in some cases, cheaper than driving.

"From Calgary to Edmonton return, it will cost $78 — $59 if you give two weeks notice," said a CBC journalist reporting from the official WestJet launch on Feb. 29, 1996.

  • What's the corniest joke you've heard from a WestJet flight attendant? Leave your stories in the comments section.

There was no first-class and no flights farther east than Winnipeg.

"They identified that there was a market that was untapped … they created an opportunity for people who couldn't afford to fly on Air Canada," said Edmonton-based aviation analyst Ken Beleshko.

Southwest Airline no-frills model

Beleshko says WestJet's success hinged on founder Clive Beddoe "being astute enough" to recruit Mark Hill, a senior executive with Southwest Airlines.

"Mark was responsible for initiating and creating this Southwest model to provide a low-cost, no-frills discount fare to the traveling public and also to establish an airline with one type of airplane which would simplify their maintenance cost and all the logistics involved when you arrive at an airport and need to process passengers."

According to a CBC report, Air Canada and Canadian Airlines were quite vocal about protecting their market share from the new kid on the block.

They failed to do that because today, WestJet has ballooned to become the second largest air carrier in the country, with hundreds of destinations.


When it launched in 1996, WestJet was modelled after the no-frills U.S. carrier Southwest Airlines. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

Corporate culture has changed 'considerably' 

By becoming a rival to Air Canada, Beleshko said WestJet has experienced some growing pains and its corporate culture has changed "considerably" over years.

"It's not a folksy family type of company anymore," he said.

"It's now a large corporation with hundreds of employees from one end of the county to the other — many of whom do not know one another. [Whereas] in 1996 when the company started, most of the employees knew each other."

That said, Beleshko believes WestJet has a bright future because it's always been one step ahead of the market.

When it comes to expansion, he believes the company will continue to proceed "very, very carefully" to ensure it doesn't overextend itself financially.