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WestJet President Gregg Saretsky says the 32 airports trying to get WestJet service ‘had to pass a financial test.’ (TODD KOROL/REUTERS)
WestJet President Gregg Saretsky says the 32 airports trying to get WestJet service ‘had to pass a financial test.’ (TODD KOROL/REUTERS)

WestJet set to announce budding courtship with new airports Add to ...

It’s the air-travel industry’s equivalent of speed dating.

Airline executives sit at one side of a table, while airport managers take turns sitting at the other and chatting them up. The airport representatives have only a few minutes to make their best sales pitches for why the carrier should schedule regular flights to their particular stretch of tarmac.

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These speed-dating rounds are a common practice in the industry as both parties vie for business, but the ones held by WestJet Airlines Ltd. last June 28 will also have major implications for communities across Canada.

In January, WestJet plans to announce the first destinations for its wholly owned regional carrier WestJet Encore. Flights will begin in the second half of the year, with a fleet of seven short-haul Bombardier Q400 turboprop planes deployed by year’s end. WestJet plans to increase that to as many as 45 planes by 2018. And as more planes are added, the carrier will also add more destinations to the Encore network.

So representatives from 32 regional airports and smaller cities, from Sudbury, Ont. to Cranbrook, B.C., went to WestJet’s Calgary headquarters in June, hoping to be chosen.

They each were given 25 minutes to woo Encore.

“They had to pass a financial test. It had to be profitable. And to the extent that there were some communities on the margin, we offered them the opportunity to tell us what they could do [to enhance their appeal],” said WestJet president Gregg Saretsky.

Would some airports provide perks, such as reduced landing fees or lower terminal rental costs? Would some put in marketing dollars to promote the region and WestJet Encore? “The test is profitability, and they can help that profitability by what they bring,” Mr. Saretsky said.

Some are airports which WestJet has already been eyeing for its main fleet for some time, but isn’t currently serving.

Sudbury is a prime candidate given how much its airport business picked up when Porter Airlines began flying there two years ago, sparking a reduction in airfares by rival Air Canada, which also serves Sudbury.

In 2009, the year before the new competition from Porter, 160,000 passengers used the airport. In 2012, that jumped to 230,000.

But for the Sudbury airport, the biggest competitor is the highway. Before Porter’s arrival, 150,000 or so travellers typically used the airport annually, but an estimated 150,000 others either drove to their destinations or to Toronto’s Pearson International Airport.

WestJet served Sudbury for a few years beginning in 2001, said Terra Glabb, director of business development for the airport. But at that time the airline was flying the larger Boeing 737 jets of its main fleet, which weren’t profitable in the small Sudbury market. After that, Air Canada Express was the only major regional carrier at the airport for a number of years.

“Our board of directors was really adamant on searching for competition for a new airline, and we were able to land Porter Airlines in 2010. That really changed things for us,” Ms. Glabb said. “There was competition. So it stimulated air travel, decreased fares and improved services, all those wonderful things for consumers.”

When WestJet left, she said, “there were never any hard feelings. I know our CEO maintained a very strong relationship with them and left the door open.”

Tristen Chernove, managing director of the Canadian Rockies International Airport in Cranbrook, similarly notes that adding another short-haul airline is more than just a potential boost for regional airports. He calls it a “statistical fact, particularly for under-served regions.”

Many people in the airport’s catchment area – a population of around 100,000 who live within easy distance of the airport – instead often drive five hours to Calgary or even to Spokane, Wash. to catch flights.

“We’ve evolved in a culture where we really feel it’s okay to give up half our day to drive to then fly somewhere,” Mr. Chernove said. “It doesn’t have to be that way. We have enough airports. With the right price point, I believe there could be a significant cultural shift of people utilizing air travel much more than they do now.”

As WestJet enlarges its fleet for Encore, more communities will be added. “And so there will be multiple schedule changes next year for WestJet Encore,” said Ferio Pugliese, president of the new network.

“And each of those schedule changes, as an aircraft arrives, is another opportunity for us to go back to a community that hasn’t yet been granted new service and say, ‘Is there something else you want to talk to us [about], or is what you’ve got on the table all there is?’ Then we’ll make the decision on the next one or two communities, and so on.”

Thirty-two communities pitched WestJet in June, but “it could go beyond 32,” Mr. Pugliese added. The expansion, he said, is an effort to grow a network “across the country over time.”

Follow on Twitter: @Guy_Dixon

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