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(Jeff Vinnick)
(Jeff Vinnick)

WestJet takes aim at Aeroplan Add to ...

Air travellers seeking to book last-minute flights or fly during peak periods are counting on WestJet Airlines Ltd.'s new frequent flier program to be an improvement over Air Canada's Aeroplan loyalty plan.

WestJet is hoping to tap into consumer discontent that accompanies searches for Aeroplan rewards, at least during popular travel times, said Patrick Sojka, chief executive officer at rewardscanada.ca, which tracks a wide range of loyalty programs.

Aeroplan passengers get sticker shock whenever they try to book with little notice or attempt to fly during any hectic holiday period, resulting in redemption requirements that can be two to four times higher than the number of points needed to obtain flights during off-peak times, Mr. Sojka said Monday, after WestJet launched its "frequent guest program."

Bob Cummings, WestJet's executive vice-president of marketing and sales, said there won't be seat restrictions on the Calgary-based carrier's reward flights.

Instead of copying Aeroplan's system of encouraging consumers to accumulate "miles," WestJet is offering "dollars off flights and holiday packages," Mr. Cummings said.

WestJet and Royal Bank of Canada introduced new credit cards last Thursday, with consumers who applied on launch day expected to receive their cards as early as March 18.

Two cards are available, called the WestJet RBC World MasterCard ($79 annual fee) and WestJet RBC MasterCard ($39 annual fee). The premium World MasterCard comes with a $100 "welcome bonus" - an amount that is credited to the holder's WestJet account for future flights or vacation packages. For every $100 charged, $1.50 in "WestJet dollars" will accumulate.

The regular WestJet RBC MasterCard comes with a $25 welcome bonus and the chance to earn at a rate of $1 for every $100 charged.

More than 10,000 people pre-registered for the cards, even before the official launch, said RBC spokeswoman Jacqui van der Jagt.

WestJet is also attempting to lure Air Canada customers away from the 25-year-old Aeroplan frequent flier program by persuading consumers to participate in a new program that offers rewards once an individual traveller spends more than $1,500 on WestJet flights annually.

Mr. Sojka said the main drawback of the WestJet frequent guest program is the relatively high threshold of minimum annual spending on WestJet flights.

He said Aeroplan still provides a greater number of options for consumers, especially through Air Canada's membership in the Star Alliance of carriers. WestJet is gradually building its airline partnerships, but it could be years before consumers are able to have access to a worldwide network.

Still, Mr. Sojka said travellers benefit from being able to compare WestJet's rewards program with Aeroplan.

Aeroplan emphasized its strength in a new advertising campaign Monday. "We put more people in more reward seats than any other Canadian loyalty program," said Groupe Aeroplan Inc., which was spun off from Air Canada in 2005.

The ad also said Aeroplan members are able to fly "in the comfort of business class for less miles than any other Canadian loyalty program, virtually every time."

WestJet has a single-class cabin, and has no plans to launch business class.

After a series of delays linked to its new computer reservations system, WestJet has come up with an "average" frequent guest program, while its more experienced rival, Aeroplan, rates somewhere in the middle between "average" and "above average" over all, Mr. Sojka said.

More than one-fifth of Aeroplan reward seats are booked within 14 days of travel, said Aeroplan spokeswoman JoAnne Hayes, who noted that passengers face higher WestJet base fares during peak times.

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