'There are operational challenges we need to deal with': WestJet CEO
Despite taking steps to reduce its flight schedule and hire more workers, the head of WestJet Airlines Ltd. says he still expects the busy summer travel season to be a "difficult" one.
“We have hired more than 1,000 people over the last couple of months. We have increased our call center staffing by 20 per cent. But you know it's not happening overnight,” said WestJet Chief Executive Officer Alexis von Hoensbroech, in a television interview on Thursday.
“We're doing whatever we can. We are mitigating any of the problems but we will see a difficult summer for sure.”
The airline said it will operate 25 per cent fewer flights this summer compared to 2019 levels, or an average of 530 flights per day, whereas it operated more than 700 daily flights pre-pandemic.
Despite the adjustments, Von Hoensbroech said he still expects “some short-term cancellations” in order to manage the “daily challenges” that the travel industry is facing.
On Wednesday, competitor Air Canada announced it would slash roughly 15 per cent of its flight schedule for July and August, with Chief Executive Officer Michael Rousseau citing "unprecedented" strains on the aviation sector as the travel season kicks into high gear.
'ALL HANDS ON DECK'
Von Hoensbroech said it has been “all hands on deck” at the airline as the travel industry navigates a surge in demand.
A recent report by New Brunswick-based analytics firm Data Wazo found 54 per cent of domestic flights to Canada’s four largest airports were delayed or cancelled over the past week, leading to many complaints from travellers.
Having an absolutely horrendous experience w/ @WestJet today. Received an email that my 6:35pm flight tmrw from YYC to Abbotsford is cancelled w/ no explination why and that I'd been rebooked on a 11:30PM flight. On hold w/ CS going on hour 3 now. So much for customer care???— AD (@AgroCitizen) June 29, 2022
The study said Toronto’s Lester B. Pearson International Airport topped the list, with 51 per cent of more than 700 flights delayed and 12 per cent cancelled.
“I can just apologize like any other airline CEOs to that. As well this is a very, very challenging time with airlines and demand recovering. We are doing the utmost to make things as smooth as possible,” said von Hoensbroech.
As he also pointed out though, the air travel sector is highly integrated and shortages or problems in one area or region can have ripple effects on the whole industry.
Transport Minister Omar Alghabra called the recent surge of flight delays, staffing shortages and luggage problems “unacceptable issues” and said the government is offering support to address these concerns.
“What we are seeing is the surge of demand for air travel beyond what anybody expected and that is honestly good news. But the surge in demand is outpacing the ability for airlines and airports to enhance the resources that they need to accommodate that surge,” Alghabra told reporters on Wednesday.
“So we are working with airlines and airports to ensure that the resources needed, that the scheduling adjustments that are needed are addressed. Because we are also seeing extreme peaks at certain hours of the day.”
BETTING ON WESTERN CANADA
Earlier this month, WestJet announced it would be “shifting resources to significantly grow its presence and network in the West” while making “sun flying as a priority across Canada.”
“Our strategy going forward is that we will concentrate our investments where they can be of most use for Canadians and where we know that we can be really strong … so we are shifting our network focus from inner Eastern flying into connecting transcontinental flights and into flying to sun destinations,” said von Hoensbroech.
“My expectation is as we will grow transcontinental and sun [destinations], we will actually ultimately see more WestJet passengers in the East than today.”