Business

WestJet CEO calls London flights a success, despite problems

WestJet's CEO proclaimed the airline's expansion to Europe as one of the best decisions made in its 20-year history, despite mechanical problems and passenger complaints.

'From Day 1 we've been full,' says airline's chief executive about flights to London Gatwick

WestJet CEO Gregg Saretsky calls the airline's expansion to Europe a success, despite its problems. (CBC)

WestJet's CEO proclaimed the airline's expansion to Europe as one of the best decisions made in its 20-year history, despite mechanical problems and passenger complaints.

In the past, chief executive officer Gregg Saretsky had called the route to London a "hobbled operation," but he did not acknowledge any problems in a speech on Thursday at the International Pipeline Conference in Calgary.

"It's been among the most successful things we've done," he said. "From Day 1 we've been full."

WestJet bought four wide-body aircraft to start flying across the Atlantic about a year ago. On average, the planes are 24 years old and had several mechanical issues, leading to flight delays and cancellations. 

I'd like to say we understand travellers very well- Greg Saretsky, WestJet CEO

Last week, Saretsky blamed the early problems on the repair company hired by Boeing to fix the planes.

Earlier this month, an Edmonton-bound WestJet flight from London was diverted to Iceland because of engine problems. Passengers heard a loud bang a few hours after takeoff.

Each cancelled flight, or flight delayed more than four hours, costs the airline approximately $225,000 in compensation to passengers, if the plane is full. 

Saretsky said the airline acquired the wide-body aircraft so the company can reach new markets. 
WestJet celebrates its first flight from Vancouver to London. The route has been plagued with difficulties, but Saretsky says, 'It's been among the most successful things we've done.' (Darryl Wilson/Phillipine Flight network)

"Many industry analysts said it was the stupidest thing they had ever seen, because WestJet's history for 20 years was that we built on the beautiful simplicity of having a single fleet of 737s, why would we make it complicated by adding 767s?" Saretsky said.

WestJet broke the mould by charging for meals and for all checked bags on international flights.

"Many laughed at WestJet saying, 'They don't really understand long-haul travel, because every other international airline does a free meal.' I'd like to say we understand travellers very well, because no one else sells London for $299," Saretsky said.

Fewer than five per cent of the flights to London have been cancelled, WestJet has previously said. 

Alberta woes

In his speech, Saretsky also lamented the high cost of airport improvement fees and other charges that lead to higher ticket prices in the country. He also spoke about how the airline has felt Alberta's economic pain with slumping oil and gas prices.

"We've had to take some body blows, as we call them, to survive and thrive in the current tough environment."

WestJet responded by moving some of its fleet away from Alberta to other parts of the country, freezing head office wages, evaluating whether to fill vacancies and deferring plane deliveries.

About 45 per cent of WestJet flights touch Alberta, he said.

Saretsky cancelled his media session with reporters, which was to follow the speech, because of scheduling.

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