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Communities lobby WestJet for short-haul service

A Westjet Boeing 737-700 takes off in Calgary. At president, Regina residents booking on WestJet have to fly to Calgary, then connect on a flight to the Manitoba capital, while Winnipeggers must travel to Calgary, then board another plane to the Saskatchewan capital. ,

© Todd Korol / Reuters/REUTERS

Communities across Canada are lobbying WestJet Airlines Ltd. to introduce short-haul flights, leaving the carrier with tough choices to make in producing a shortlist.

WestJet's fleet of 97 Boeing 737s, which each seat from 119 to 166 passengers, are too large to profitably service smaller centres.

As WestJet considers ordering up to 40 turboprops for its new regional subsidiary, analysts say the airline will likely favour the Bombardier Q400 over the ATR 72-600. Calgary-based WestJet will be able to configure the Q400 turboprop to seat 74 passengers.

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Airports clamouring for WestJet service include those in Penticton and Fort St. John in British Columbia, Prince Albert, Sask., Brandon, Man., and Peterborough, Ont.

Air Canada's regional affiliate Jazz provides up to three daily round-trips between Vancouver and Penticton, but there aren't commercial flights between the B.C. Okanagan city and Calgary.

"We love having Jazz, but we have a terrific number of people who own vacation homes here and they're from Alberta," said Penticton Mayor Dan Ashton, who is also chairman of the Regional District of Okanagan-Similkameen. "We don't have air service going east. To fly to Calgary, you either have to backtrack to Vancouver or drive an hour to Kelowna for a flight to Calgary."

WestJet is still studying potential regional routes, notably eyeing non-stop flights between Regina and Winnipeg with turboprop service provided by its wholly owned regional division.

The carrier will be "joining the dots," WestJet chief executive officer Gregg Saretsky said Thursday during a webcast from New York.

For now, Regina residents who book on WestJet have to fly west to Calgary, then connect on a flight to the Manitoba capital, while Winnipeggers must travel to Calgary, then board another plane to the Saskatchewan capital. "We fly to both of those cities but not between them. So, smaller aircraft will allow us to connect those dots," Mr. Saretsky said at Raymond James Ltd.'s airline conference. He noted that the new short-haul service, slated to launch in 2013, will have crew bases in Calgary and Toronto.

Two weeks ago, Calgary-based WestJet said in an internal memo that it's seeking to expand operations under a two-tier structure, gambling on maintaining labour harmony by giving its non-union pilots veto power over the plans to launch a regional subsidiary that will pay reduced wages.

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Meanwhile, the Air Canada Pilots Association has taken steps to conduct a five-day strike vote, faster than the traditional 10-day voting period. In memos this week and last, ACPA chairman Gary Tarves expressed concern about the airline's outsourcing plans.

"The company has proposed dramatic changes to our scope of work," including outsourcing 50 per cent more regional flying, expanding domestic code-sharing pacts and emulating Australia's Qantas, which runs the low-cost subsidiary Jetstar, Captain Tarves wrote this week.

Rick Allen, Air Canada's senior director of flight operations, raised the prospect last week of contracting out flying at Air Canada Vacations and Air Canada Cargo to help meet the "enormous challenge of maintaining a competitive business."

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