Canadian low-cost carrier (LCC) WestJet is set to launch its inaugural non-stop flights to London Gatwick next summer.
From May 6, 2016, the airline will fly four times daily to the London hub, offering services to six Canadian cities: Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Winnipeg, Toronto and St John’s. These new routes represent WestJet’s first non-stop services to London and the only non-stop service from Winnipeg to the United Kingdom.
The Vancouver-Gatwick service will operate six times weekly, served by one of WestJet’s four B767-300ERW aircraft, which feature the new teal and blue maple leaf-themed logo that will eventually appear on all the carrier’s aircraft.
With a capacity for 262 passengers, the B767 offers 238 economy and 24 premium seats.
By next spring when the London services are launched, all of the airline’s 767s will be equipped with WestJet Connect – the carrier’s new in-flight entertainment and wireless connectivity system.
The new Gatwick services will be seasonal, operating until October 21.
Their launch follows the success of WestJet’s seasonal services to Scotland (Halifax-Glasgow) and Ireland (Newfoundland-Dublin), which also operate during the peak summer months.
Here, WestJet CEO Gregg Saretsky explains why the airline’s new Gatwick services are a big deal.
Q: What was the business case for the new London routes?
Well, it is really part of an evolution that has been 20 years in the making. WestJet was established 20 years ago when the founder decided that it was simply too expensive to travel by air. Common folk couldn’t afford it and it was time to change it so the advent of low-cost air travel came to Canada when WestJet was born. Two years ago we founded WestJet Encore, which uses Bombardier Dash 8 Q400s to bring low-cost air travel to smaller communities across Canada and now that we have built a network that has good utility and good connectivity, it’s a natural evolution to think about long-haul wide-body transportation to liberate those folks who want to fly internationally. Why London? Well Canada has a great affiliation to London and and Britain and two million people fly between the two countries every year. We launched a service to Ireland two years ago and a service to Scotland this past summer so it was only fitting we finished out our route development in the British Isles with services to London and we are excited our new aircraft will let us do that.
Q: Why is it now the right time to launch these London services?
We’ve been thinking about wide-body long-haul services for quite some time. The wide-body aircraft (B767-300ERWs) have arrived in our fleet and they will start flying to the Hawaiian Islands and Jamaica this winter. By the time we launch our London services next May we will have four in the fleet. We have been building and investing in our domestic network so we can connect people to places all over Canada and beyond. For example, we will be able to fly people from London to Hawaii with one stop in Canada. With the network we have built out we can offer passengers travelling to North America with several side trip options, from trips to Disney in LA or golf in Palm Springs, or even New York. We have a holiday division called WestJet Vacations and those will be for sale in the UK market. About 70% of our vacation product is sold through the travel trade.
Q: What’s your travel trade strategy?
We work closely with the trade and in the UK we have opened a sales office in London so we have representation and they are working with travel agents, tour operators and wholesalers. Our plan is to be available across all store fronts, both online and bricks and mortar, and we give special fares to all of those channels. With the support of the travel trade, combined with our low fares, we will be very attractive to their clients and ours.
Q: How much cheaper is WestJet?
We are looking at fares of £194, taxes and fees inclusive, which is 50% lower than some of the fares on the market now. Clearly not all of our fares will be at this price, but the step-ups are very modest so there will be significant savings for British passengers travelling to Canada. We also have a Premium Economy product called WestJet Plus, which is a Business Class seat that we are selling at a Premium Economy fare. So it’s a 20-inch seat in a two-by-two-by-two configuration, and it comes with all the creature comforts including a hot meal service, priority boarding, complimentary cocktails, and linens and hot towels. That product is very competitive. We are hoping the trade can sell these fares to upscale leisure travellers and budget-conscious business travellers.
Q: What new and existing markets is WestJet tapping into on the London to Canada routes?
It’s a very mature market with two million trips per year and there is a strong visiting friends and relatives (VFR) sector, but until now it’s been expensive for them to travel. Some families can only afford to visit once every other year. We think our services will create incremental trips on the same budget, allowing families to now travel single year, so that will grow the market. For others looking where to spend their holiday dollars, there is an opportunity to put Canada on the list of more affordable destinations, especially right now with a strong Pound Sterling against a weak Canadian Dollar, which effectively puts Canada on sale by about 30%.
Q: What scope is there for more expansion in the UK market going forward?
Our services to Ireland and Scotland are among the best new services internationally that we have launched during our 20 years in service. They were overnight successes and were virtually sold out all summer. We look at routes as investments. We won’t launch a new route unless we believe it can give us at least 13% to 16% return. In terms of London, this is an excellent market that’s ripe for the picking and we have the right product at the right price and I believe it will give us the returns that will continue to make WestJet a strong global airline.
Q: Will the Gatwick services become year round?
We are keeping it a secret for now, but clearly we need to decide whether to make it year-round and we expect to announce that to the market some time early in the New Year. It will depend on the support we get from the market and the travel trade. If the Brits come out in big numbers I can only predict good things. We have already increased the length of the season for the services to Scotland and Ireland and will continue to advance and extend these if the market supports it. We would love to be year round for all UK services.
Q: Is there room for WestJet to launch services to other UK destinations?
Absolutely. We have been speaking to a variety of UK airport authorities. Manchester, Birmingham, Cardiff and Liverpool are all potential candidates for services from Canada. We are also looking at Continental Europe because the 767 can fly 11 hours non stop from Canada so that puts geographies such as Asia Pacific, Latin America and Middle East within our purview too. All of these markets are screaming for a low-cost carrier to liberate them from the high cost of travel. It’s an exciting time for us.
Q: What makes WestJet a one-of-a-kind low-cost airline, with affordable frills?
In the UK market people think of low-cost carriers like Rynair or easyJet and they come with a stigma in that people say they will put up with it for a few hours for a trip to the Mediterranean, but do they really want to fly like that long haul? I think it’s important for travellers who don’t know WestJet to understand that while we bring low fares to the market, we offer a hybrid service on board, so we have 31-inch legroom in Economy and 38 inches in Premium Economy; we have on-board WiFi and 110-volt and USB power in every seat so you can stream content from your devices or if you don’t have a device, we can rent you one; we have 100 channels of entertainment; and we will be serving hot meals, which are part of the fare if you fly Premium Economy. So it’s not just a bare-bones service. For passengers in the main cabin we offer a great base fare and then a smorgasbord of options from which to choose that are available at an extra fee. It’s quite a different experience and we receive lots of awards for the quality we provide.