With pilots deal, WestJet set to expand long-haul flights

WestJet now has a deal in place with its pilots that will allow it to add more wide-bodied jets to its fleet. What will that mean for Canadian travellers?

No word on what new transatlantic destinations the airline plans to add

WestJet is looking to expand its long-haul flights now that it has a deal with its pilots. (Darren Bernhardt/CBC)

WestJet's pilots have voted in favour a new agreement that will allow the airline to expand its long-haul flights, adding more competition in the market, which means more choices for consumers in overseas air travel.

After a failed vote in November, 77 per cent of WestJet pilots in late December OK'd a new deal that will pay pilots more to fly wide-bodied jets, such as the Boeing 767. The airline said that with the deal in place, it will now look to buy more aircraft.

"This agreement reflects the collaborative relationship we have with the WestJet Pilots Association (WJPA) and now allows us to proceed with plans to expand our wide-body operations to new destinations in the future," said WestJet's chief executive Gregg Saretsky in a statement.

Westjet and its London experiment

WestJet launched its transatlantic flights to London's Gatwick airport this past spring. While the airline sold plenty of seats, there were many delays and cancellations over the first several months of operation related to mechanical issues with the four Boeing 767s that WestJet purchased to service the route. Those issues continue to trouble the route, with flights out of London being cancelled as recently as Christmas Day.

The airline describes the route as a success, though. In its most recent earnings report, WestJet said it flew nearly six million passengers in the third quarter of the year — a record. 

"The best opportunity for us is to grow the wide-bodied fleet responsibly but quickly," Saretsky said on the company's earnings conference call in November.

Other airlines sizing up Canada

WestJet launched its transatlantic flights at a time when other discount airlines are looking to expand here.

Iceland-based airline Wow began offering connecting flights from Montreal and Toronto to Europe through Reykjavik in May, the same month WestJet began flying to London.

As well, Irish airline Ryanair and Norwegian Air are eyeing North America. The latter recently ordered 19 Boeing 787 jets with the option to buy 10 more, and has just been licensed to fly between the European Union and the United States.

"The greater threat [to WestJet] is from Norwegian Air, which has a huge order for 787s and a very low cost structure." said Fred Lazar, who follows airlines at the Schulich School of Business at York University in Toronto.

"Norwegian Air will probably try to enter the Canadian market, so [WestJet needs to] get a foothold before they are established, be somewhat competitive on fares, or try to," said Lazar. 

Lower fares coming?

WestJet has not said what new destinations it has in mind. That will depend on demand and the type of aircraft it ultimately purchases. But it is likely to offer competitive fares on any new route it launches, as it did when it started flying to London.

However, Lazar isn't expecting rock-bottom Ryanair-type prices.

"WestJet is not looking to shake things up dramatically," said Lazar.

"On any of the routes it starts flying, probably for the first six months there will be some very attractive seat sales and Air Canada will match them with their Tango fares," Lazar said. "Then if traffic builds, as WestJet expects, then fares will tend to rise up."