This article was originally published on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/one-year-westjet-group-alexis-von-hoensbroech
This week, I celebrate my one-year anniversary as the Chief Executive Officer of the WestJet Group.
After 20 years working in the airline industry in Europe, the opportunity to lead this Canadian aviation success story made it an easy decision to come to Canada.
Before joining, I knew what most people knew about WestJet: an exceptional safety record, award-winning corporate culture, extraordinary service and loyal guests. I was equally aware and impressed by how WestJet pioneered low-cost air travel in Canada, having spent much of my career in a highly competitive airline market. The WestJet story is one that is both remarkable and irreplicable.
While 2022 was my first year in the role, it was also the first year of post-pandemic recovery. Canadians were eager to travel again, and we met that ask by flying 16 million guests, which was more than double what we flew in 2021. We recruited more than 3,000 people into our organization, including airport and contact centre agents, cabin crew and pilots.
While we proudly reclaimed our position as the most reliable major airline in Canada, we unfortunately also experienced some significant service disruptions:
- A summer peak travel period that exposed an under resourced aviation industry as demand surged, following the removal of pandemic travel restrictions.
- An IT data outage, which surfaced years of underinvestment in WestJet’s technology.
- Most recently, severe impacts to holiday travel, brought on by heavy snowfalls and freezing temperatures coast to coast, during the busiest week of the year, and unlike anything we’ve had to contend with in past history.
In each of these situations, we did not meet many of our guests’ travel expectations, and for that we are sincerely sorry.
While our people worked tirelessly to go above and beyond, as they are known to do, as an organization, we saw breakdowns and opportunities where we can do better. We also learned that every player within the Canadian aviation ecosystem is vital in creating an affordable and reliable experience.
A chain is only as strong as its weakest link and when one link breaks, the entire system suffers. If an airport doesn’t have working equipment to clear a runway, runs out of appropriate de-icing fluid, when baggage systems break or if there’s not enough people to adequately staff security lineups, you look to us – the airline – to make things right for you.
The entire Canadian aviation industry must work together to provide a seamless and reliable experience. We take this very seriously, and we are actively participating in ongoing conversations with airport partners, service partners, government and others involved in the full guest journey. Every party in our ecosystem needs to live up to the same high standards, to meet the rightful expectations of our guests.
What matters most in all of this, is our guests. It matters that you get to enjoy your vacation, make it to the wedding, see your loved ones as planned.
Our commitment to our guests
WestJet will celebrate 27 years of service at the end of this month. Over these years, WestJet grew quickly. We were doing a lot and trying to be all things to all people. To ensure our sustainable recovery and the resilience of our airline over the long term, we need to focus on the areas that made WestJet strong in the first place.
We have ambitious growth plans that will create more jobs, more travel options and more affordable airfares for Canadians. We are bringing the best of WestJet into 2023 with a renewed commitment to our roots and a focus on being friendly, reliable and affordable, while making our guests and WestJetters central to everything we do.
Growing our network in Canada
Firstly, our path forward embraces a more simplified and focused network that will see us significantly grow our presence in Western Canada and increase connections for leisure routes across the country. I have been contacted by some of our Eastern-based guests, who are disappointed in our new strategy, which at times has been positioned in headlines as us abandoning the east. This is not true. While I acknowledge that we may not serve all the routes between Eastern-based Canadian cities that we used to, we will continue to grow in Eastern provinces through direct connections to cities in the west and increased access to leisure and sun destinations. This will be further strengthened once we conclude our proposed merger with Sunwing, that will hypercharge travel options for all Canadians to the most beautiful vacation spots in the south. Over the long run, we expect to be growing at all airports we serve in Canada.
Our commitment to Operational Excellence
Secondly, 2023 is focused on driving operational excellence and alleviating pain points by:
- Improving our guest facing capabilities, including timely and accurate communications and expanded ability for guests to self-serve when disruptions occur.
- Investing in back-end systems that ensure our people have the information and tools needed to keep our operation moving.
- Building in additional schedule resilience to better isolate disruptions, which will help our operation recover more quickly.
- Ensuring the processes for large scale disruptions are redesigned to facilitate speedy and enhanced decision making.
It is not lost on me that the challenges we have faced as an airline over the last year may feel to some as though our commitment to people has fallen to the wayside. That is far from the truth. Through every challenging day and every challenging circumstance, WestJetters across our organization continuously rose above and never wavered in their commitment to putting safety above all. When you had an experience where that didn’t feel like the case, I suspect it was because our people were also feeling let down. We owe our guests and our people better, and in 2023 we have prioritized the required improvements. We intend to be fast, but we know we can’t fix everything in just a few weeks.
Lastly, we are focused on getting back to our successful and highly productive low-cost structure to ensure relentless competitiveness and affordability for our guests.
The cost of aviation in Canada
What stood out to me when I moved here, was Canada’s complex aviation landscape. Canada’s geographical footprint, lack of passenger rail and landlocked communities make air travel an essential service. Canadians need airlines more than most other countries in the world. For thousands of communities across Canada, airlines are the only reasonable means of transportation.
Despite the essential nature, there is an exorbitant fee burden required to support the unique landscape. For example, a roundtrip fare between YYZ (Toronto) and YYC (Calgary) includes nearly $140 in fees. These fees are collected by the airline but get passed on to agencies like Nav Canada and airports.
In addition, the current environment of high fuel prices can add up to another $140 in cost per passenger. That means we have to charge passengers a minimum $280 for a round trip, before we even factor in the cost of crew, aircraft, rent and salaries. This is the detrimental math of affordable air travel in Canada.
It’s notable that passenger rail services in densely populated geographies in Canada are subsidized with taxpayers’ dollars, while air travel is continuously burdened with incremental costs, driving up ticket prices even further. This inequity needs to be addressed.
This past year, many have approached me with the notion that there is insufficient competition in Canada. What’s surprising is that Canada may be one of the only countries to see several new airlines launch service during the pandemic. These airlines are selling the premise of ultra-low cost travel against the backdrop of a fee structure that is anything but. Canada’s biggest airline route, Toronto–Vancouver, was served by two airlines pre-pandemic; this summer there will be six, with 30 per cent more capacity. Competition has never been more active, and that is a good thing for Canadians.
WestJet has always stood in favour of competition. We know it’s required to keep airfares competitive, and the Canadian travelling public adequately served. We also know how important it is that we stay focused on being affordable. Despite the challenges of the current cost environment, WestJet is still the best positioned airline to provide affordable airfares so you can travel, while we balance our financial health so that we are here, in service of Canadians, for years to come.
The scale of our well-established operations and our pre-pandemic track record of being the most consistently profitable airline in North America for more than 20 years give us confidence. Our renewed focus on simplicity, cost and on being the most efficient operator of the 737 aircraft is just one of the ways we will keep managing our competitiveness as we grow. With Canada’s largest aircraft order book, we have planned deliveries for up to 85 additional Boeing 737 MAX aircraft over the next five years, most of them being the super efficient MAX 10 aircraft equipped with 212 seats. This allows us to spread the cost of flying over more seats than any other operator of mid-range aircraft in Canada.
Where we are going
This January, our hard-working teams returned us again to our familiar position as Canada’s most reliable airline, outperforming our competitors in on-time departures, arrivals and completion factor.
Throughout this year, we will take delivery of new aircraft and grow our network by more than 30 per cent from 2022. This means we will actively recruit more than 2,200 additional WestJetters into guest facing roles, including close to 400 valued pilots to support our operations and the demand for travel.
As I look to the future, I am confident in where we are going, and what I know to be true:
- Like the travelling public, the people who work at WestJet want the travel experience to be great.
- There is work to be done, both within WestJet and across the airline industry, to ensure this happens.
- I am deeply committed to leading our organization to do our part and to continue to be the safe, reliable airline that Canadians know and love.
Thank you to our more than 12,000 aviation professionals who know how important their work is to Canadians. And thank you to our valued guests, we look forward to serving you in 2023 and for years to come.