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WestJet: the no-frills airline with three planes

Between WestJet and Greyhound Air, Canadian air passengers suddenly had more options in 1996. But could all that competition last?

Greyhound Air was hot on the heels of the upstart airline in 1996

Two new entries in the Canadian airline business are good news for value-oriented passengers, but can they last? 2:19

Between WestJet and Greyhound Air, Canadian air passengers suddenly had more options in 1996. 

Calgary-based WestJet, launched in March of that year, had just three planes. But, as CBC reporter Kelly Crowe found out, the airline had tapped into a demand for low-cost flights.

Flying WestJet was going to save passenger Art Moxam a 12-hour drive from Calgary to Vancouver. (The National/CBC Archives)

"Most of the rates that I got [from other airlines] were well over $200," said passenger Art Moxam, standing at a ticket desk where an agent had just booked him on a return Calgary-Vancouver flight for $198.77.

The three jets were consistently full, and ticket agents were busy taking reservations from passengers.

"I think there's room in the market for everybody," said WestJet's Siobhan Vinish, who said WestJet just wanted "a small piece of the pie." 

New dog in town

But someone else was hungry to eat WestJet's lunch: Greyhound Air, which had not yet been licensed to fly by the National Transportation Agency but was airing television commercials and booking reservations.

Greyhound Air ran cheeky commercials to promote its service before it was licensed to fly in July 1996, months after WestJet launched. (The National/CBC Archives)

"We're marking new territory," said a voice-over in a snippet of a Greyhound Air ad featuring the eponymous breed lifting its leg on the wheel of a jet.

Until then, Greyhound had been a coach bus line serving cities and towns across Canada.

Canada's two big airlines — Air Canada and Canadian Airlines — both declined to speak to CBC on camera about their new competition.

"But both companies say they're taking the new competition seriously," noted Crowe, "and they'll do what they have to, to protect their market share."

That included matching low prices, said Crowe.

'Somebody's going to have to retreat'

Airline analyst Barry Prentice said it was unlikely Canada could sustain that many airlines. 

Of all the carriers flying passengers in 1996, Canadian Airlines was most vulnerable in the face of new competition like WestJet and Greyhound Air, said analyst Barry Prentice. (The National/CBC Archives)

"There won't be enough passengers to fill all the seats and somebody's going to have to retreat," he said, adding that Canadian Airlines was most vulnerable because of its high debt load.

He was right. Canadian Airlines was absorbed by Air Canada in 1999. 

Greyhound Air got its license in July 1996, but went belly-up 14 months later.

WestJet continued to expand and in May 2019 was purchased by a privately owned company pending approval by its shareholders.