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The Globe and Mail

WestJet opens throttle in Eastern Triangle

An Air Canada jet is seen on a runway.


WestJet Airlines Ltd. is mounting a multipronged attack against Air Canada and Porter Airlines Inc., declaring war against its rivals in an ambitious gambit to woo business travellers in the crucial Eastern Triangle battleground of Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa.

Calgary-based WestJet will ramp up its flight schedule at Toronto's Pearson International Airport in May, while dangling an array of incentives designed to boost its ticket revenue in the country's busiest corridor for passenger traffic.

WestJet's bold move is part of the broader escalation of competition in Ontario and Quebec for corporate customers and entrepreneurs who have traditionally paid high fares for last-minute bookings. Air Canada, which currently flies from Pearson, expects to launch flights at Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport this spring, aiming to end Porter's monopoly at the island terminal, which has attracted a significant number of business clients.

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Montreal-based Air Canada, No. 1 in the Eastern Triangle, said Tuesday that it will stand its ground amid intensifying competition, bolstered by loyalty to Aeroplan points and service in its executive-class section, in contrast to the single-cabin configurations at Porter and WestJet.

Toronto-based Porter, seeking put some distance between itself and third-place WestJet, is counting on dominating service at Billy Bishop, located near Toronto's downtown core, playing down Air Canada's planned incursion on the island and WestJet's expansion at Pearson.

As of May 2, WestJet customers taking flights on the Toronto-Montreal and Toronto-Ottawa routes will be entitled to free wine and beer - borrowing a page from Porter's playbook of complimentary booze. As well, WestJet passengers will be allowed to catch earlier or later flights with no change fees, space permitting, on the same day, compared with rivals' policy of charging such fees on lower-category fares, said Bob Cummings, WestJet's executive vice-president of marketing.

Noting recent winter storms in Ontario and Quebec, Mr. Cummings said that if a WestJet flight is more than 30 minutes late in the Eastern Triangle, the carrier will sell fares at a 50-per-cent discount for a customer's next booking, even in cases of poor weather. Airfares for cancelled WestJet flights will be reimbursed, plus a 50-per-cent discount on the next booking.

This year's May weekday flight schedule will feature 10 round-trips daily on WestJet's Toronto-Montreal route, compared with six in the same month of 2010, and nine daily on the Toronto-Ottawa service, compared with five in the year-earlier period. "We'll have the right pricing and relevant slots," Mr. Cummings said in an interview before WestJet's board of directors met Tuesday in Toronto.

For bookings made at least three weeks in advance, WestJet fares in the Eastern Triangle will be as low as $39 one-way, before taxes and other fees, while last-minute bookings will be about $299 one-way, he said.

Porter president Robert Deluce said there is much more to consumer decisions than merely price, emphasizing that the four-year-old carrier provides lounge access to passengers and a wider selection of flights than WestJet. "It's not as if we haven't already faced competition from flights at Pearson," he said.

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Air Canada spokesman Peter Fitzpatrick said the country's largest airline remains the "preferred choice in the Eastern Triangle. We alone offer executive-class service, flights every 30 minutes at peak periods, Aeroplan and other amenities that business travellers want, as confirmed by an Ipsos Reid survey that found we are the preferred airline of 71 per cent of Canadian business travellers."

Founded in 1996, WestJet first flew into Ontario in 2000, but a breakthrough in the Eastern Triangle has proven to be elusive, largely because Air Canada has consistently offered a much wider selection of flight times and garnered the loyalty of business passengers keen to collect Aeroplan points.

Porter launched its service in 2006 and overtook WestJet within three years as the region's No. 2 carrier. Gregg Saretsky, who took over as WestJet's chief executive officer last April, views the rise of Porter as a source of embarrassment for WestJet and he is now embarking on an aggressive campaign to reclaim market share.

Two years ago, Air Canada dominated the Toronto-Montreal-Ottawa corridor, holding roughly 60 per cent share of seat capacity, while Porter held more than 20 per cent and WestJet came a distant third at nearly 15 per cent. Porter CEO Robert Deluce estimated Tuesday that the privately owned carrier has increased its share to about 30 per cent over the past two years, cutting into revenue at WestJet and Air Canada.

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