WestJet wants to be big in long-haul. The carrier announced a firm order today for ten (10) Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner aircraft and options for ten more. Currently WestJet flies long-haul with four 767s, serving Hawaii and London. Growing the long-haul fleet brings many more potential destinations into play, including Asia, South America and more European cities. Deliveries will stretch over a three year period beginning in Q1 2019 and the aircraft will carry the GEnx-1B engine from General Electric.
The current WestJet fleet of just over 150 aircraft operates a mix of routes, many seasonal and many focused on leisure markets. Additional wide-body aircraft will allow that seasonal/targeted growth pattern to reach across oceans rather than remain in North America & the Caribbean. Expect less than daily and seasonal service to a wide variety of destinations as the fleet comes online.
Details on the interior configuration are not yet available but assuming 9-abreast in economy and a relatively dense “premium” cabin selling as a Premium economy product rather than business class is prudent given the current 767 configuration. That layout is a vestige of the prior owner, Qantas, and one that Westjet described as temporary so things could change. But the carrier has shied away from a true premium product throughout its operational history and there are competitive forces that likely encourage a similar offering today.
UPDATE: Or maybe an actual premium cabin. That would be interesting.
WestJet 787s likely to have lie-flat seats, CEO Saretsky says, setting up full business service on the planes
— Greg Keenan (@GregKeenanGlobe) May 2, 2017
The man driving the decisions on which airports will be served is no stranger to such growth. Brian Znotis serves as the airline’s VP for Network, Alliances & Corporate Development and has a 20+ year history in airline network planning. Znotis moved back to Canada in late 2016 after 17 years with Continental Airlines and United Airlines, eventually rising to VP Network at the Chicago-based carrier. He was the driving force behind much of the long-haul expansion for United and now appears set to bring a similar plan at WestJet.
Znotis has more than just his United history to draw on in planning this growth. Norwegian rapidly built a long-haul network based on 787s focused on the leisure traveler segment, mostly in transatlantic markets. Some of that traffic is fed from the short-haul operations but a significant amount is stand-alone. WestJet has the ability to build a similar operation in Canada. Norwegian does not currently fly to Canada but the long-haul competition is likely bad news for Air Canada and its Rouge low-cost operation. Rouge currently flies 22 767s to mostly leisure destinations across the Caribbean, Europe and Asia.
This is the second major announcement for WestJet in recent weeks. The carrier also indicated it will launch a ultra low-cost arm by the end of 2017 using some of the existing 737 fleet. Expect “much lower fares with a completely unbundled product offering and increased seat density” on those flights per the company’s statement. There are plenty of questions around what is left to unbundle with the WestJet product, particularly in the short-haul markets, but it is coming soon.
The new order also adjusts short-haul growth plans for the carrier. WestJet previously expected to take 15 737MAX aircraft between 2019-2021. These firm orders are now converted to options available between 2022-2024. With an average 737 fleet age of just over 8 years this delay should not have a material impact on the overall performance of that fleet, though it obviously means a shift in growth focus from the regional flights to destinations further afield.
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