When Mark Kolke books flights from Calgary to Hawaii for his vacation, he keeps his mind on the Pacific paradise and blocks out memories of being trapped in the dreaded middle seat.
But relief could be on its way for Mr. Kolke and other WestJet Airlines Ltd. customers who seek comfort in the window or aisle seats at the front of a plane, with the bonus of no nattering passenger in the middle seat to encroach on their personal space on the long flights.
WestJet, which does not offer business class, is planning a trial project to designate an "empty middle-seat zone" in the first eight to 10 rows of its single-aisle planes between Calgary and Hawaii, as well as Edmonton and Hawaii, perhaps charging a fee of at least $20 one-way to sit in those rows.
For WestJet, it's an attempt to turn what appears to be a negative - no long-range jets in its fleet - into a positive by rethinking the space inside its medium-range Boeing 737-700s.
It sounds a little strange, but sometimes goofy ideas work. Frequent flyer Mark Kolke
In one fell swoop, by not filling those middle seats, WestJet lessens the plane's flying weight, saves on fuel costs and - most importantly - complies with aviation safety rules.
When the new non-stop routes are introduced in March, WestJet's plan will deliberately leave 16 to 20 middle seats vacant on its 136-seat Boeing 737-700s, guaranteeing passengers a bit more room to stretch.
"It sounds a little strange, but sometimes goofy ideas work," said Mr. Kolke, a Calgary commercial real estate agent who travels regularly to Maui, alternating between WestJet and Air Canada, which will start its own non-stop flights in December between Calgary and Hawaii using the long-range Boeing 767.
Without spending a nickel to spruce up the interior, WestJet will be able to create a "premium economy" section while sticking to its casual corporate culture, which shuns business class.
For the past four years, WestJet has operated the shorter Vancouver-Hawaii route, and that option to stop over in Vancouver will remain for Albertans. But instead of forking over big money for long-range planes, WestJet favours limiting the number of travellers on its Boeing 737s on the Alberta-Hawaii non-stop runs.
The carrier would lighten the weight on board to save on fuel consumption for the new seasonal flights across the Pacific Ocean - a fuel cushion that's required, for instance, in case headwinds or other incidents force a flight to be diverted back to North America.
Without spending a nickel to spruce up the interior, WestJet, the airline that launched in 1996 with three planes serving a handful of cities in western Canada, will be able to create a "premium economy" section while sticking to its casual corporate culture, which shuns business class.
Bob Cummings, WestJet's executive vice-president of guest experience and marketing, said the Calgary-based airline wouldn't put up a curtain to separate those at the front from the remaining rows on the Boeing 737-700s.
"It's an opportunity for us to do some trials without jeopardizing our business model. It's a small-scale approach," he said.
Instead of lining up Boeing 787 Dreamliners or Boeing 767s to cross the Pacific, Mr. Cummings said it makes more sense for WestJet to shrewdly deploy planes already on order.
How much of the armrest are you allowed to have and still be neighbourly, as it were? It becomes a question of real estate. Richard Bartrem, WestJet's vice-president of corporate culture and communications
No decision has been made yet on whether to charge an extra $20 or so to upgrade for the Alberta-Hawaii route next March or levy a higher fare at the outset for the front of the plane.
Jason Brisbois, an economist based in Edmonton, said he would be keen to purchase the certainty of more space on flights to Maui with his wife, Ruth.
"When I book a long flight with my wife, we book the window and aisle, and hope the middle seat stays vacant, so we have more room for our books, beverages and iPods. But that doesn't always happen," Mr. Brisbois said. "I'm a big proponent of anything that brings civility back to airline travel.
"If WestJet wants to keep that middle seat empty, I'm all in favour."
There have only been a handful of incidents in recent years where WestJet passengers seated next to each other got into shouting matches over a shared armrest, before cooler heads prevailed.
"How much of the armrest are you allowed to have and still be neighbourly, as it were? It becomes a question of real estate," said Richard Bartrem, WestJet's vice-president of corporate culture and communications.
For the overwhelming majority of flights, travellers are able to police themselves, and Mr. Bartrem doesn't foresee heated disputes about how to divvy up the middle seat and the coveted fold-down tray that accompanies it.
Drew Magill, director of commercial airplane marketing at Boeing Co., said he admires WestJet for coming up with an innovative way to stretch the flying range of the Boeing 737-700.
But he also likes the idea of simply raising the armrest to obtain more seat room.