WestJet CEO Alexis von Hoensbroech posted a think piece to his LinkedIn last week, reflecting on his first year on the job, the airline's COVID recovery while also sharing future plans.
The CEO’s post, published last Friday (Feb. 17), noted how 2022 was the first year of post-pandemic recovery as Canadians eagerly began travelling again.
That year, WestJet flew 16 million guests, “which was more than double what we flew in 2021,” von Hoensbroech wrote, noting how the airline recruited 3,000 people, including airport and contact centre agents, cabin crew and pilots.
But “significant service disruptions” got in the way, wrote von Hoensbroech, who spent 20 years working in Europe’s airline industry before joining The WestJet Group in February of 2022.
This included a summer travel period that “exposed an under resourced aviation industry as demand surged,” von Hoensbroech wrote, an IT data outage, as well as a chaotic holiday travel season brought on by snow storms and freezing temperatures coast to coast – a situation “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,” von Hoensbroech wrote.
The CEO goes on to say that every player within Canadian aviation 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,” he wrote. “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.”
Not abandoning the east
WestJet will celebrate 27 years of service at the end of this month, and as the airline continues its recovery, “we need to focus on the areas that made WestJet strong in the first place,” von Hoensbroech wrote.
The CEO said WestJet will embrace a more “simplified and focused network” that will grow its presence in Western Canada and increase connections for leisure routes.
von Hoensbroech shared that some Eastern-based guests are disappointed in WestJet’s strategy, “which at times has been positioned in headlines as us abandoning the east,” he wrote.
“This is not true,” he wrote. “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.”
Alleviating pain points
This year – 2023 – is focused on “alleviating pain points,” von Hoensbroech goes on to say.
This means improving the customer experience, including timely and accurate communications and an expanded ability for guests to self-serve when disruptions occur.
WestJet is investing in its back-end systems to ensure its people have the information and tools needed to “keep our operation moving,” he said.
The airline is building additional schedule resilience to better isolate disruptions and ensure that processes for large-scale disruptions are redesigned to facilitate speedy solutions.
“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,” von Hoensbroech wrote. “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.”
The cost of flying
von Hoensbroech also addressed the rising cost of flying, promising a return to affordability.
The CEO says that “Canada’s complex aviation landscape” stood out when he first moved to the country.
“Canada’s geographical footprint, lack of passenger rail and landlocked communities make air travel an essential service,” he wrote. “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 this, there is “an exorbitant fee burden” required to support the unique landscape, he wrote.
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, von Hoensbroech explained.
In addition, high fuel prices can add up to another $140 in cost per passenger, he pointed out.
“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,” the CEO wrote. “This is the detrimental math of affordable air travel in Canada.”
Unlike rail, air travel is "continuously burdened with incremental costs, driving up ticket prices even further," he said.
"This inequity needs to be addressed."
von Hoensbroech also acknowledged 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,” he wrote. “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.”
“We know it’s required to keep airfares competitive, and the Canadian travelling public adequately served,” he wrote. “We also know how important it is that we stay focused on being affordable.”
Despite these challenges, 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,” he wrote.
The airline, notably, has 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,” von Hoensbroech wrote.
This year, WestJet will receive new aircraft and grow its network by more than 30 per cent from 2022, the CEO added, and there’s a plan to recruit more than 2,200 additional employees, including some 400 pilots.
“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,” he wrote.
“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.”
Read Alexis von Hoensbroech’s full statement here.