WestJet is taking on Air Canada on its home turf in Quebec by pursuing one of the largest expansions in the airline's history after beefing up its service in French.
The Calgary-based airline said it's in a position to grow its reach in Canada's second-largest province by population after requiring that all flight attendants hired since 2014 be bilingual. About 94 per cent of flight attendants on the regional WestJet Encore service now speak both official languages.
WestJet has announced 105 more flights per week in the province on top of the 140 it has now.
The airline, which has operated in Quebec since 2003, is making its biggest push in the province by adding daily flights between Montreal and Quebec City, Halifax and Boston using 70-seat Bombardier Q-400s. The regional airline will have 45 aircraft by mid next year.
Twice-daily flights to Halifax start March 15, four-times daily service to Quebec City begins June 15, and Boston will get twice-daily flights on Oct. 15.
WestJet is also increasing the frequency of flights between the Quebec and Vancouver, Calgary and Toronto using Boeing 737 planes.
Bob Cummings, executive vice-president of commercial for WestJet, said there's room in the province for two large airlines, which compete fiercely in each other's territory.
"There's 8.2 million people here and for there to be one so dominant player, I think there's room for two players and this certainly increases our relevance and provides choice to Quebecers," he said in an interview Monday.
He said WestJet's expansion will also allow more people to connect to its network in order to fly across Canada, to Europe and elsewhere through airline partner Air France-KLM.
WestJet said its introduction of low fares and competition to markets serviced primarily by Air Canada has historically caused fares to substantially decrease and prompt more people to fly.
Offering lower fares and increased flights will stimulate the Quebec market, which is under-developed for WestJet, by appealing to business and leisure travellers, added Cummings.
Air Canada says it welcomes the competition.
"We are very well-positioned to compete successfully with any carrier worldwide as we offer everyday low fares in every market we serve on a year-round basis, in addition to introductory special fares and promotions," spokeswoman Isabelle Arthur wrote in an email.
She said the country's largest carrier, its low-cost Rouge subsidiary and regional partners operate about 2,400 flights per week between Montreal and 85 destinations, including 24 in Canada and nine in Quebec.
Michel Archambault, professor emeritus specializing in airline transportation at the University of Quebec in Montreal, expects Air Canada will fight back, as it has done in the past.
Ultimately, he said prices and schedules will influence passenger choice, along with loyalty programs such as Air Canada partner Aeroplan.
While the new Quebec service will have very low introductory fares, rising fuel prices will prompt airlines to increase overall fares, Cummings added.
Faced with higher costs, WestJet twice increased fares over the last five months, by an average of two to three per cent.