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WestJet believes its efficient business model makes it attractive to global players looking for partners. It has held discussions with oneworld and, according to Beddoe, as many as "60 to 70 airlines" about potential cooperation. Defunct Canadian Airlines was a founding oneworld member but the alliance currently has "no partners in Canada," points out Durfy. "We'd be a pretty natural fit."
But before any alliance talk can get truly serious, WestJet has to migrate over to a new reservation system (aiRES, from Travelport, formerly Cendant) that can interface with those of other carriers and with online booking portals such as Expedia. The system is expected to be implemented next year, and Durfy says once it is proven, WestJet will be capable of partnering up. "It will allow us to do interlining," he says.
The airline believes it holds a strong hand and does not want to rush into just any alliance. "There are a lot of things in the legacy codeshare model that don't fit with us," Durfy says. "There will have to be give and take no doubt, but there are some fundamentals to our model that we believe if we change it will hurt us." Adds Executive VP-Operations Ken McKenzie: "We need to find partners who are nimble and agile. We don't want to walk in [to a meeting with prospective partners] and have an 800-page document dropped on the table. We like to keep things simple, not complicated."
WestJet has tried to keep its fleet simple, expeditiously retiring its dash 200s to make way for 737NGs, of which it plans to have 92-95 by 2011. "The 600s, 700s, 800s are the perfect aircraft for what we want to do over the next five, six years," Durfy says. One of its ambitions over that timeframe is to grow in the business passenger market. Durfy estimates that 40% of the airline's current customers are business travelers, whom he says appreciate the friendly "guest experience" service, young fleet and efficient operations.
While it has no plans to alter its single-class formula, Durfy says Westjet will continue to "go after the business segment" and will make new route selections with such customers in mind. Attracting business passengers is just one positive offshoot of the new fleet. McKenzie notes that the carrier has a C$68 million maintenance budget for 2007 but estimates that figure would be upwards of C$300 million if it still operated dash 200s. "I shudder to think of the cost of operating the old planes now," Beddoe comments.
US Expansion McKenzie concedes that WestJet likely can make big inroads into the transborder market only if it partners with US airlines. "The biggest challenge [in expanding transborder operations] is with the airport itself in the US," he explains. "In Canada, airports have to allow equal access. In the US, individual terminals are often owned by airlines. We can be blocked. So we basically have to find a partner to help." But he cautions against aligning with a "large and cumbersome" carrier or alliance.
WestJet, which during winter months operates to as many as nine continental US destinations and two in Hawaii, now has about 4% of the transborder market. "We'd like to get that up to 25%," says Durfy. "The new reservation system will help us with that. It'll give us more flexibility . . . People in the US will be able to use Expedia to book WestJet." Almost all of its transborder passengers are Canadian. "We're the largest provider of seats for Canadians going to Las Vegas," he says. "Is there a way we can get people in Vegas, when it's 119 degrees there, to come to British Columbia?" He would like to push US bookings from 10% of the LCC's transborder tickets to about 25%.