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Column: WestJet strikes again

An opinion piece on the carrier that's seen a lot of changes in the recent past and continues with disruptions.

Once upon a time, not long ago, there was this really cool, well-run regional carrier named WestJet.

I used to love flying WestJet. Granted, a member of our extended family worked for WestJet in its infancy, and he knew a thing or two about aviation. So that meant WestJet’s status went up a notch or two in my eyes right off the bat.

But WestJet was still enjoyable. The flight attendants did their best to make it a positive experience. They were funny, engaging and they seemingly wanted to have you on their flight. It was a no-frills airline – you didn’t get a meal, for example – but the company didn’t cheap out on flights, either. For me, it’s what a domestic flying experience should be.

It even showed in their marketing. Remember those great April Fool’s Day videos? I’m still waiting for 2012’s Kargo Kids to materialize.

If you were to ask regular passengers of both WestJet and Air Canada in 2006 which they preferred, WestJet would have won in a landslide. Oh sure, you had to take a flight to Calgary to get from Regina to Toronto, but the overall superior experience was WestJet.

Which is why it’s sad to see what WestJet has become.

I understand that WestJet is a business, and its mantra is to make money. But you can make money, run a good business and create a fun environment. WestJet proved that in its first 20 years.

The latest source of WestJet stress is courtesy of a potential airline pilots work stoppage that was narrowly averted. Kudos to the company and the pilots on an 11th-hour, tentative agreement. But the company started cancelling flights Thursday, leaving passengers stranded even though the strike/lockout had yet to begin.

This happened at the start of the peak travel season, creating lots of uncertainty for those who booked flights months ago, before the labour strife was even publicly discussed.

I did not have a flight cancelled. My summer trip to B.C. is slated for early July. I was still nervous there might be a strike or a lockout, and it would drag on for six weeks, scuttling my long-awaited trip to Vancouver Island and west-central B.C.

I can’t imagine the stress that WestJet caused for its passengers travelling during the Victoria Day long weekend.

(I might be on WestJet’s no-fly list if they see this column).

People will point to the pandemic as the time in which things changed at WestJet, but it was long before then. I’ll argue it started with the introduction of WestJet Encore. Those cushy, comfortable short flights with in-flight television were replaced with smaller planes, harder seats and a reduced passenger experience.

I’ve also seen WestJet introduce a checked baggage fee (before Air Canada), I’ve seen them oversell flights (which never would have happened 15 years ago) and just stop being fun.

Then you had the travel nightmare of last Christmas. I don’t fault WestJet for what happened, or for not adding extra flights at Christmas. But the communication with those affected was terrible, and the inability to cancel a flight after alternative travel arrangements were found was impossible. Again, something that wouldn’t have happened 15 years ago.  

When I go back to B.C. this summer, I’ll still fly WestJet, but that’s because it’s really the only option from Regina to Abbotsford. Air Canada doesn’t fly into Abbotsford. And my parents live less than 15 minutes from the Abbotsford Airport, so it would be pretty poor to expect them to drive further to the (much busier) Vancouver International Airport to pick me up and drop me off.

Last summer, when I went to Atlantic Canada, I chose Air Canada over WestJet for the first time. And while I had some infuriating moments, I heard horror stories about the WestJet experience at Halifax’s Stanfield International Airport.

WestJet needs to rediscover the magic that made it work initially. It has to stop being Air Canada Lite. WestJet is never going to beat Air Canada as this country’s most-travelled airline. But it can regain its spot as the airline that you love to fly, because they take strides to make it a great experience.

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