Westjet warns of 40-60% capacity cut to “secure the financial viability of our airline”

A Westjet Boeing 737 departs Vancouver International Airport in July 2019 (photo: Brett Ballah).

Canada’s Westjet is preparing for a 40 to 60 per cent capacity cut as it copes with a drop off in demand. The new estimate is a substantial change since Wednesday, when the airline’s chief executive expected a 12% cut, an indication just how fast the Covid-19 pandemic is evolving.

“We continue to see a significant reduction in demand and are evaluating all available measure to secure the financial viability of our airline,” the airline said in an e-mail update Saturday evening.

“Early capacity estimates point to approximately a 60 per cent reduction in international capacity and at least a 40 per cent reduction domestically.”

The move is in line with cuts announced at U.S. partner Delta, whose Chief Executive Officer, Ed Bastian, said in a memo that Covid-19 was causing demand to plummet “unlike anything we’ve seen – and we’ve seen a lot in our business.”

Delta is cutting capacity 40%, including all but two of its services to continental Europe and parking up to 300 of its aircraft.

Despite the planned reductions, Westjet said it hopes to keep operating as many flights from Europe to Canada as it can, to get Canadians home.

“As a caring airline and organization,” the airline said in an update, “our goal is to continue to fly our international flights and return as many Canadians home as possible as the demand for inbound travel remains strong at this time.”

The federal government has signalled it will restrict the number of Canadian International airports that will accept foreign flights, a reality Westjet said it is preparing for. “Once we have clarity on the Canadian airports approved to receive international flights by the federal government, we will take the appropriate next steps.”

The airline plans to release an updated comprehensive schedule early next week. Unions have been warned to expect some form of job losses.

“Unfortunately, we also have no alternative but to reduce the number of employees,” said Mark Porter, WestJet, EVP, People and Culture, Friday. “Our first and most preferred option is to ask  WestJetters to consider voluntary leaves, unpaid vacation, reduced work time among other voluntary measures.”

Westjet call centres have been inundated with people looking to change or cancel their travel plans. It has waived fees and loosened restrictions. The airline is asking people only to contact them when their travel is within three days.

In a bid to calm panicked passengers, Westjet said it hoped by Monday to be able to distribute sanitary wipes as people boarded aircraft. “This will enable guests to further sanitize their respective areas should they wish.”

Westjet is privately owned by Onex, which completed its $5 billion takeover in December.