WestJet Hopeful For Transatlantic Rebound Despite Viral Variant Threat

Westjet Boeing 787-9
Credit: Rob Finlayson

Despite some concern over the delta coronavirus variant and other impending viral strains, Canadian low-cost operator WestJet sees promise in the transatlantic market as it takes a prudent approach to rebuilding its European network. 

WestJet CEO Ed Sims told attendees at the CAPA Live September conference that from an international perspective, “one of the things COVID has taught me is to minimize risk and to operate with prudence and caution.” 

That cautious approach entails focusing on long-haul service from WestJet’s hubs in Calgary, Toronto and Vancouver. Sims explained the airline was “trying to make sure we fly a broad swath of European destinations built around Central European hubs.” 

Sims cited WestJet’s recent launch from Calgary to Amsterdam Schiphol, which has “astonishing load factors.” The airline is also operating from Calgary and Toronto to London Gatwick and between Calgary and Paris Charles de Gaulle. 

That service gives WestJet the basis to start building out back to destinations like Rome and Dublin, Sims said, adding the airline has recently announced plans to launch flights during 2022 from Toronto to Glasgow and Edinburgh operated by its Boeing 737-8 narrowbodies. 

Sims expressed some concerns over the delta variant as well as the lambda variant “or whatever may come next,” but he also highlighted Canada’s vaccination levels. According to Our World in Data, roughly 68% of Canada’s population is fully vaccinated. WestJet’s CEO believes Canada could reach critical mass “north of around 70%” during the next couple of months. 

He also explained Canada has introduced “very timely legislation” that mandates all federally regulated workers and domestic travelers be fully vaccinated by Oct. 31. 

“I think Canada has a wonderful opportunity to establish ourselves as one of the safest countries to travel to, from and within. That gives us a very strong platform on the Atlantic, where people are now so used to carrying a digital passport with a QR code to get access to a whole range of services,” said Sims. 

Sims concluded that WestJet has a “relatively modest” business class cabin on its 787 widebodies of 16 seats, and 28 seats in premium economy. As a result, there is “less obligation to fill those forward cabins, and a greater opportunity for us to fill … the aircraft with both VFR [visiting, friends and relatives] and leisure traffic,” he stated. 

“Notwithstanding the delta variant, I’m feeling pretty confident about the projections on the Atlantic,” Sims said. 

Aviation Week Intelligence Network’s Fleet Discovery database shows that WestJet has five 787s in service, one in storage and four on order. Sims stated the airline hopes to increase “that fleet up to 10 aircraft” within the next six months and as the recovery gains momentum the airline “has a great opportunity to build beyond those 10 787s.” 

Lori Ranson

Lori covers North American and Latin airlines for Aviation Week and is also a Senior Analyst for CAPA - Centre for Aviation.