What's behind WestJet's new Connect Wi-Fi system

After several years of planning, WestJet is now beginning to roll out its new in-flight Wi-Fi and entertainment system, which should provide a financial boost for the Calgary-based airline.

Airline adds new service and new way to charge passengers

A WestJet employee shows off the new Connect system. (@WestJet/Twitter)

WestJet is kissing seatback screens goodbye and hoping passengers will be OK with using tablets and phones to bide their time while soaring through the sky.

After several years of planning, WestJet is beginning to roll out Connect, its new in-flight Wi-Fi and entertainment system, which should provide a financial boost for the Calgary-based airline. Watching movies will be free, but accessing Wi-Fi will come with a cost.

It's high time the airline improved its electronic offering, say analysts, since its live TV service was falling out of date, especially for an airline expanding its international presence. The TV signal fades shortly after planes leave Canada. 

Any degree of comfort, convenience or flexibility that you want in your airplane ride -- you pay- Rick Erickson, independent airline analyst

"Maybe it made sense in the late 1990s to do TV, but it doesn't make sense to do that today," says Rick Erickson, an independent airline analyst. "Westjet has been behind certainly Air Canada and a number of other North American carriers in terms of entertainment offers."

Connect will require a behavioural change for people boarding a WestJet plane, who are accustomed to a seatback touch screen. Passengers must have their own laptop, smartphone, tablet or other mobile device to tap into the Connect system. WestJet also rents out some tablets. 

"You need to download the WestJet app before you take off though. They could communicate that a bit better," says Katie Mayer, who tried out Connect on a recent flight from Calgary to Las Vegas. Mayer said she enjoyed using the system.

Right now, passengers can access about 400 movies and TV shows. They can also use complimentary Wi-Fi for 15 minutes to check their e-mail or log onto the internet. For now, the cost of Wi-Fi for a full flight is $8, while movies remain free.

"The web app and connection process is real slick, with real time interruptions for PA announcements," says Clinton Hallahan, who was pleasantly surprised by the service on his flight from Vancouver to Calgary. Still, he says there is room for improvement. While the movies are easy to access and play smoothly, the internet connection was very slow on his flight.

WestJet Connect is expected to be installed on the majority of the airline's 737 planes in 2016.

Cut costs, charge more

The Connect system achieves two different objectives for WestJet: improve its in-flight entertainment and boost its bottom line. No longer does the airline need to buy hundreds of screens to outfit every plane. There is also a weight savings, which is highly coveted in the airline industry, as all the cables running up and down the aircraft to each seatback TV are no longer necessary. 
Westjet plans to install its Connect system on the majority of its 737 fleet in 2016. (Kyle Bakx/CBC)

How many people choose to pay for the onboard Wi-Fi will be interesting to watch. Aviation experts, like Erickson, anticipate passengers will open their wallets in order to appease their insatiable need to always be connected with their friends, work, Facebook, and so on. 

The move also follows a trend in the airline industry of offering the lowest base fare possible to lure ticket buyers, then offering multiple add-ons for passengers to upgrade their experience.

"This is all about ancillary revenue," says Erickson. "What vehicle or tool can we use to pry the most amount of money as we can out of our guests. That's why they are doing this. They're not doing this for a hobby. They're in the business of making money."

Already most airlines charge for all types of extra products and services such as food, booze, earphones, direct flight, seat selection, and business class, among others.

"It goes on and on and on," says Erickson. "Any degree of comfort, convenience or flexibility that you want in your airplane ride — you pay."

In WestJet's case, it recently promoted its Plus fare and pre-reserved seating options to try to boost its ancillary revenue, on top of recent changes to charge passengers for checked bags. The moves are already paying off.

The airline's ancillary revenue is up more than 60 per cent so far this year, compared to last year. In 2014, the average guest spent an extra ten dollars in ancillary fees. That spending is nearing $17 on average this year. Analysts suggest the North American average is about $20 per passenger.

WestJet's revenue from fees such as for checked bags and preferred seats, according to its second quarter financial report. (WestJet)


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