The airline will contract out airport operations in all but four stations, consolidate call centres, and restructure its management
Canada’s Westjet announced a major shakeup Wednesday, eliminating all in-house airport operations except its four biggest centres and consolidating back-of-house services.
The airline said it would also restructure its office and management staff, eliminating 3,333 positions to “secure its future.” It will concentrate all call centre activities at its Calgary base and contract out all airport operations, such as ticket and gate agents, except in its three hubs – Calgary, Toronto, Vancouver – and Edmonton, the airline’s fourth key airport.
“As the country slowly begins to reopen, we all continue to grapple with the reverberations of this terrible pandemic,” said Westjet President and Chief Executive Officer Ed Sims in a video posted on the company’s YouTube page. “Westjet has remained self-sufficient throughout this extended crisis, cutting our costs by more than 60%. And yet despite these efforts, the damage that we’ve incurred from a weakened demand environment is being compounded by multiple factors, including a patchwork of provincial and federal government travel advisories.”
That patchwork was on full display Wednesday. Premiers of the four Atlantic provinces – New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, and Newfoundland and Labrador – announced a plan to ease travel restrictions imposed during the pandemic and allow residents of all four provinces to travel freely within the region.
On the West Coast, British Columbia Premier John Horgan – whose province has no domestic travel restrictions – called on the federal government to keep the country’s southern border with the United States closed to all but essential travel.
“We’ve seen spikes in cases just to the south of us in Washington State, as well as Idaho, Oregon, Nevada, Arizona, and California,” said Horgan. “These are traditionally the people who would come to British Columbia in the summer to enjoy our tourism attractions, and that’s why it’s to critically important that we continue to work with the federal government to keep our international border closed, so we that can protect British Columbians and not give up the ground that we’ve been able to accomplish over the last number of months.”
In March, Westjet cancelled all of its international flights and laid off 6,900 people, only to rehire 6,400 a few weeks later thanks to federal wage subsidies. Today’s cuts, the airline said, would be permanent.
“Today’s announcement regarding these strategic but unavoidable changes will allow us to provide security to our remaining 10,000 WestJetters, and to carry on the work of transforming our business,” said Sims. “WestJet will once again serve the needs of Canadian travellers with low fares and award-winning service levels tomorrow and years from now.”
Contracting out airport jobs is not unusual in the airline business. Several companies compete in the market, providing crew in airline uniforms to handle passengers, baggage, and cargo. Sims said Westjet would look for airport contract partners who are open to hiring laid off workers.
“If there were other viable options, we would be taking them,” said Sims.
“These measures will not change our commitment to our guests and to the communities we serve,” said Sims. “But they will have an impact on an organization that was once 14,000 strong.”
Sims acknowledged the pandemic, which has forced the airline to ground thousands of flights since mid-March, has been frustrating for the few remaining passengers looking to travel. In July, Westjet has scheduled 1,228 flights across its domestic network of 38 cities, still drastically reduced from the airline’s schedule in 2019.
“To our guests,” he said, “I know it has not been easy to cancel your travel plans, to receive sometimes multiple flight changes, and to experience the prolonged wait times to speak with one of our agents on the phone over the last few months. We know many of you are frustrated and I am genuinely sorry.”
Absent, however, was any mention of refunding passengers whose flights have been cancelled, an issue that has infuriated thousands of people across the country and drawn political fire in Ottawa. Instead, Westjet has stuck to its policy of issuing travel vouchers for cancelled flights, except in limited circumstances.