After seeing demand decimated at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, WestJet is expecting to see challenges of a different sort as bookings recover.
“We saw literally 90 per cent of our demand drop away overnight,” Angela Avery, executive VP of external affairs, told a virtual roundtable.
“When you look at some of the really dark days back in the spring of 2020, we were literally on some days flying less than one per cent of the number of guests that we’d normally fly.”
Avery said WestJet lost 82 per cent of its guests at the worst point since the spring of 2020, but is seeing demand come back gradually.
WestJet polling across the country shows that more than 60 per cent of Canadians intend to travel domestically in the next six month, mostly to visit family members they haven’t been able to see through the earlier parts of the pandemic.
Avery said more than one fifth of Canadians anticipate coming to Alberta for family and tourism trips.
She said a third of Canadians are looking stateside for upcoming trips, a third are seeking sunny destinations in Mexico and the Caribbean, and a fifth have their eye on European destinations.
Leisure travel will be just one part of WestJet’s recovery, with cargo and business travel expected to play important roles in projected growth.
“We will essentially be growing back 11 years’ worth of WestJet in just six months,” Avery said. “It means all kinds of pain points.”
Some of those pain points will include delays in systems and services like baggage, catering and even IT.
One current challenge is call volumes to the WestJet call centre.
“We’re experiencing essentially 140 per cent of the volumes that we experienced in 2019,” Avery said. “You say, ‘Well how is that possible? You’re not flying 140 per cent of what you were flying in 2019.’
“It’s possible because essentially everybody that’s calling right now has more complex calls to manage.”
Customer service agents are having to help callers navigate COVID-19-related travel considerations while booking travel that was previously restricted — travel that is weeks or months in the future.
Where the airline’s website previously listed estimated wait times, it now has a menu system that tries to answer frequently asked questions or direct customers to self-serve options.
Requesting a call-back results in bookings a week out, with the Calgary-based airline losing 70 per cent of its headcount through the pandemic.
“We’re not staffed to the levels that we need to be right now to serve our guests in the custom that we’re used to serving them, but we do have hiring plans and recall plans in place to address that,” WestJet chief commercial officer John Weatherill told Global News.
Bob Sartor, president and CEO of the Calgary Airport Authority, highlighted the challenge Calgary International Airport is going to face in keeping up with WestJet’s ramping up operations.
“The biggest worry we have is amenities because as WestJet peaks — which makes perfect sense from an efficiency and effectiveness perspective — we are seeing a disproportionate amount of business in smaller windows, and then we have gaps,” Sartor said.
He doesn’t expect airport operations like retail and restaurants to return to previous levels until next year, but did welcome the “aggressive posture” WestJet was taking.
“A successful restart and a safe restart of travel and tourism is essential for our economy,” Sartor said, identifying WestJet as the “primary catalyst” for bringing international tourists to Alberta.
According to the airline, WestJet added $1.74 billion to GDP in 2019. But even with that 11 years’ worth of growth expected by the end of 2021, WestJet will only return to 2013 levels of its business.
Weatherill said the place YYC has with the airline as a hub means the Calgary airport will see a faster return to pre-pandemic travel levels.
“I can say with certainty, absolutely it will because of our focus here in YYC,” Weatherill said.
“We maintained more service in Calgary than we did at any other major airport through the pandemic, and we will bring back service to Calgary faster than we bring back service to any other major city as we move on to the recovery phase of the pandemic.”
Sartor added that the historically high connections and close proximity to centres in the U.S. will serve as a competitive advantage for Calgary and its international airport.
Navigating the rest of the pandemic
But Avery stressed the need for confidence in safe air travel during what is hoped to be the latter parts of the pandemic.
That point was echoed by Deborah Yedlin, CEO of the Calgary Chamber.
“We keep hearing that we have to have a transition to this post-pandemic world that is consistent with other jurisdictions, so we can attract people to come and visit and to work,” Yedlin said.
“We cannot be seen to be offside with other jurisdictions because people are going to be concerned with safety and anecdotally I am hearing that there are organizations looking at the province, being concerned in terms of their workers and what their safety could be.”
Avery noted that small- and medium-sized enterprises are at the fore of travelling as more jurisdictions lift health restrictions and vaccines are taken up, calling it a catalyst for the early part of their growth.
Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi said travel and tourism is one of seven industries targeted for growth in the city, noting that the other six sectors will support business travel.
The former university professor stressed the importance of the city and region’s de facto branding and its impact on travel decisions.
“I don’t mind telling you that our economic development work and our tourism work has gotten more difficult as a result of some of the short-term decisions that we’ve been making around the economy and that we’ve been making around COVID,” Nenshi said.
He cited the consideration the Calgary Stampede board made this year in hosting the annual rodeo and exhibition with heavy COVID-19 mitigation efforts.
“Our biggest concern going into that was not for this year’s Stampede; it was for future years’ Stampede.”
Calgary Economic Development’s interim CEO Brad Parry said the ability of WestJet to connect the city to business, tourism and logistics around the world is an important part of the long-term economic vision that’s CED’s mandate.
“It really is a strategic long game, especially in the world that we live in,” Parry said. “It’s not something that we can pick up the phone and two days later we have a company, relocate or expand here.
“We have to take the time to nurture that relationship and prove to them that we can deliver on the promises that we’re making.”
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