WestJet celebrates 7th birthday after 28 years in Canadian skies

The airline’s inaugural flight took place on Feb. 29, 1996, a leap day

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After 28 years in business, WestJet finally turned seven on Thursday.

The airline’s inaugural flight took place on Feb. 29, 1996, marking its leap into the Canadian airline market with a business plan that proved a major disruption to the industry.

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Hundreds of WestJet employees gathered in the main hall of its Calgary airport campus Thursday for a “fireside chat” with CEO Alexis von Hoensbroech and company founder Clive Beddoe to celebrate the occasion.

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Beddoe, the Calgary-based company’s first CEO, served cake and shared stories of the carrier’s fledgling days, a tale of an underdog airline that launched with only three aircraft — a number that today stands at almost 200 — and its rise to become Canada’s second-largest airline. 

“When we were writing the business plan, I knew it would succeed,” Beddoe told Postmedia. “If we did it right.”

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WestJet founding shareholder and former chairman of the board Clive Beddoe and WestJet CEO Alexis von Hoensbroech celebrated WestJet’s 7th leap year birthday chatting with employees about the early days of the airline on Thursday.  Gavin Young/Postmedia

WestJet’s early business model was based on that of American carrier Southwest Airlines — preaching low cost and no-frills. The first flights had no first class, no in-flight meals and no flights that ventured farther east than Manitoba.

However, with its five destinations in Western Canada often costing less than it would to drive, passengers flocked to the airline through the late ’90s. “Our principal competitor is Ford or Toyota,” Beddoe told the Herald just days before the airline’s first flight in 1996.

But the airline has evolved alongside its ever-shifting industry. WestJet now flies to more than 100 destinations and employs roughly 12,000 people — numbers that necessitate at least a few frills and increased costs.

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While its corporate culture has changed as the airline has grown — and after it sold to private equity firm Onex Corp. in 2019 for $5 billion — Beddoe attributes WestJet’s continued success to the grassroots spirit that has persisted since the early days.

“Day 1, we had 220 employees that were passionately determined to make this company successful,” said Beddoe. “The energy that was in this company in the early days — and still today — is what keeps this company alive and well.”

Added von Hoensbroech: “That fundamental business model is still alive and still works and we can see it . . . We went through the pandemic, the company has been changing but the fundamentals of our company are still the same.”

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WestJet founding shareholder and former chairman of the board Clive Beddoe, left and WestJet CEO Alexis von Hoensbroech celebrated WestJet’s 7th leap year birthday chatting with employees about the early days of the airline on Thursday.Gavin Young/Postmedia Gavin Young/Postmedia

‘Competition makes us stronger’

WestJet’s celebration comes amid a week of bad news in the air travel industry. Budget carrier Lynx Air’s final flight departed Calgary on Monday, marking the end of the airline’s less than three years in Canadian skies.

“We love competition. And we actually want competition because we believe that competition makes us stronger and prevents us from becoming complacent,” said von Hoensbroech. “Seeing competition leave the market, some people may think this makes our life easier — I’m not sure whether it does.”

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Beddoe said with Canada’s population standing at only 40 million, Lynx’s departure proves “this country can support two significant airlines.”

“The amount of work that has to be done just to launch one flight . . . it makes it extremely difficult to do on a small scale. And I think that’s just a harsh reality,” he said.

Von Hoensbroech says the future remains bright for WestJet, noting that several new employees have been hired across his two years as CEO.

“We are a job machine, and we are an economic driver for Western Canada. We are the company that democratized air travel in a country that needs air travel as an essential service,” he said. “To deliver all of these great things to Canadians makes us all very, very proud . . . I’m very confident for the future and look forward to being part of it.”

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