WestJet set for long-haul low-cost premium #PaxEx opportunity


As a new generation of long-haul low-cost carriers arrive, and an increasing number of full service carriers either spin off part of their operations or create new subsidiaries, the passenger experience in the pointy end is set for changes. Canadian low-cost carrier WestJet, currently in the planning stages of expanding its long-haul operations from a handful of Boeing 767-300ER aircraft to a brand new fleet of 787 Dreamliners, is one to watch.

WestJet’s decision to create a North American ultra-LCC of Boeing 737 jets inside its existing LCC structure feels a little odd, as my RGN colleague Seth Miller discusses, but the Canadian carrier is clearly bullish on the prospects for a reasonably priced premium long-haul, low-cost market with its new widebodies. Interestingly, WestJet is aiming for both a recliner-based premium economy and a flat-bed business class on its 787 Dreamliner aircraft, which will arrive in 2019.

That’s unusual compared with the rest of the market, which tends towards a 2-3-2 recliner set up front on the A330 or 787 cross-section. AirAsia X, which launched a decade ago, remains the sole example of a long-haul low-cost carrier with anything more than a recliner in its front cabin, with an increasingly elderly angled lie-flat seat in a small cabin on its Airbus A330 aircraft.

WestJet is keeping its 787 up front plans close to its chest. Image: WestJet

Recently launched Level, the low-cost long-haul arm of IAG (parent company to British Airways, Iberia, Aer Lingus and Vueling) offers premium economy recliners as its top product, with the usual 2-3-2 layout on an A330 but pitched at 37”, slightly less than the 38” standard that has roughly held since the debut of Virgin Atlantic’s Mid Class in the early 1990s.

Scoot, Norwegian and Jetstar offer something very similar as their top product, whether they call it business or premium.

There are a number of options available for WestJet, from the compact staggered seats that took this year’s Aircraft Interiors Expo by storm to more traditional fully flat beds without direct aisle access like the Rockwell Collins Diamond seat launched by Continental and now seen on any number of airlines. The engineering improvements on staggered seats that offer direct aisle access but can be pitched at similar distances to products that require a stepover from window or middle seats — whether that’s the Zodiac Optima, Stelia Opal or Thompson Vantage XL — mean that a top-notch product is more feasible now than it has ever been.

Zodiac’s Optima offers dense economics with direct aisle access. Image: Zodiac

The “comfort canyons” between 3-3-3 Dreamliner economy and the 2-3-2 premium economy style recliners seen on many 787 aircraft, and then between those recliners and flat bed business class, are also sizeable enough to enable WestJet to differentiate its hard product offerings.

WestJet also benefits from being in an existing Francophone market in Canada, where hybridisation of longhaul leisure carriers like Air Caraïbes, Corsair, Air Austral, XL Airways and Air Transat — together with Air France’s maintenance of a separate subfleet for largely leisure markets and Air Canada’s densification efforts over the last few years — have all muddied the #PaxEx waters somewhat.

A key question for WestJet is, of course, not just about hard product: it’s about the service that this locally popular plucky little carrier decides to offer. To an extent, it’s enough of an independent, iconoclastic brand to be able to have a really good think about what makes sense to offer on the routes it wants to fly. To what extent can it, for instance, avoid specialist business class catering and instead offer complimentary selections from an economy class inflight buy-on-board menu, given that passengers are starting from a place of education about WestJet’s existing longhaul passenger experience on London flights?

As WestJet expands to a new generation of longhaul aircraft it will be able to create a new type of #PaxEx. Image: WestJet

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  1. Seth Miller

    I don’t think the 3-class choice for the 787s is particularly unusual. Also, the 787s are being pushed to the market as not really being a traditional LCC product. The comments in the recent earnings call about pricing for those business class seats – not wanting to undercut the rest of the market – suggests that WestJet is really bifurcating their product in many ways. Long-haul will be much closer to a legacy product. And on the 787s that’s not all that hard given that the coach offerings, at least on hard product in the back where the 787 hard product mostly isn’t great.

  2. John Walton

    I’m not saying it’s unusual for airlines, I’m saying it’s unusual for LCCs — and is indeed the only LCC operating a three-class product. What I’m really interested in is exactly how much of a legacy product WestJet will make its longhaul 787 offerings, particularly given the less than delighted response to its 767 PaxEx. As I mentioned in the context of the “comfort canyons”, there’s certainly room on this aircraft for three classes of service, and I can’t wait to see what they make of it.

  3. Kris Moen

    Good article as it pertains to the new WestJet longhaul operation. However the article confuses the 787s with WestJet’s proposed ULCC. The ULCC will be a 10 aircraft operation using 737-800 and fly domestic Canada, transborder Canada-USA, or International sun destinations from Canada. The 787 operation will fly from Canada to either Asia or European destinations. But to be clear, the 787 operation will not be the ULCC.

  4. John Walton

    Hi Kris — many thanks for flagging this difference. A publishing glitch on my part meant that the original title didn’t go through, and what was a throwaway reference for completeness about the LCC Inception (very reasonably!) seemed out of place. I’ve now edited both the title and the reference to make that entirely clear.

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