CALGARY – Founded in 1996, Alberta, Canada based WestJet is known for its low cost, no frills flights radiating from its home in Calgary. The upstart LCC, known for its friendly “Westjetter” service, has established itself as a popular airline with travelers.
In May of 2016, WestJet began long-haul service to London Gatwick using second-hand Boeing 767-300 widebody aircraft.
Twenty Boeing 787-9 Dreamliners (10
Setting the stage for full service transformation, WestJet configured its Dreamliners with true Business and Premium cabins.
The Albertan underdog airline has grown up and now competes head-to-head, product-for-product with the establishment on long-haul flights.
WestJet’s first 787 Dreamliner, registered C-GUDH (fin number 901) was delivered in January, 2019. It is named “Clive Beddoe”, after the airline’s chairman and co-founder.
The aircraft is to fly domestically between Toronto (YYZ) and Calgary (YYC) on crew familiarization flights prior to being deployed internationally. Tickets went on sale in December with the first scheduled flight on February 20, 2019.
Business Class was priced rather steeply at almost $1100 one way. I instead went with Premium. For $580 one way, I would fly from Toronto to Calgary on the inaugural 787 flight and then connect to Las Vegas on a 737.
I would also get to experience both the newest Premium product and the outgoing Plus product. Spoiler alert – there was no comparison!
Scheduled departure time for flight WS 655 to Calgary was 9:00 am. Despite that, boarding time was a full 50 minutes before departure at 8:10 am. I gave myself plenty of time allowing for long lines.
Toronto Pearson’s Terminal 3, home to WestJet and leisure airlines such as Air Transat and Sunwing, was quite busy on this Wednesday. After careful secondary screening of my camera bag, I made it to gate C35 by 7 am.
I was expecting to see a huge setup for the inaugural event but was disappointed to see that this would be a low-key affair.
Ground staff was still busy setting up pastries, coffee, and balloons for the event. There was some 787-specific signage. Saved for a couple of other guys, there was not a significant enthusiast presence and zero media presence.
About 15 minute before boarding, WestJet’s Chief Commercial Officer Arved Von Zur Muehlen made welcoming remarks.
Noting that most passengers were wondering the reason for the celebration,
Starting April 28, the airline will begin flying the Dreamliner from Calgary to London-Gatwick, followed by Paris-CDG in May, and Dublin in June.
The gate event concluded with a ribbon cutting.
Boarding started immediately thereafter. Since I was seated in Premium, I boarded in Zone 1. Staff gave away WestJet plastic luggage tags and pens, but neither were specific to the 787. On board, I went around the cabin for photos before most of the passengers took their seats.
While there was a lack of souvenirs, there was no lack of enthusiasm from Rosa, our Cabin Manager. She immediately sensed my interest. After all, it was hard to miss me wearing a 787 Dreamliner shirt taking a bunch of photos!
I told Rosa my thus-far-successful goal to fly on the inaugural Dreamliner flight on every U.S. and Canadian airline. She was duly impressed. Rosa proceeded to show me around the cabin, meet the rest of the cabin crew, and arranged a flight deck visit with the pilots.
The cabin is stylish. Colour palettes are carefully chosen to reflect Canada. Dark grey and deep navy are the dominating colours but glacier turquoise and wood highlights are found throughout for contrast.
In the Business cabin, literature holder is made up of complex V shapes in the airline colours. This is complemented with the bulkhead, a design using 3-D puzzle pieces incorporating the same V elements.
Together, they complete a visual treat that makes one feel like they are in an elegant, high-end studio. Little design details can be found everywhere: contrasting colour threading on the headrest to textured V chevron elements on the seats and blankets.
In the separate Premium cabin, there are 28 seats, four rows arranged 2-3-2 with 38-inch pitch. Center armrest is double wide and there is a legrest as well. There is no bar under the two seat side, making under seat storage a convenient proposition.
My seat 8K, last row in the Premium cabin ahead of the bulkhead, was stocked with an amenity kit, large headphones, a bottle of water, pillow, and a thick quilted blanket with comfortable fuzzy microfiber.
Karl, the flight attendant working my section, introduced himself along with pre-departure orange juice. He went on and explained the function of our seat. This was necessary given the seat has hidden features under the armrest, specifically the headphone jacks and the power outlet.
Karl returned with a printed menu and took our drink and breakfast orders. The meal choices were banana bread French toast or omelette. Two drink choices were taken – one for pre-meal and another for during the meal.
WestJet’s safety video “First Flight” came on. It is a computer generated-animation of a young girl experiencing flying for the first time. The title is rather appropriate since it is also WestJet’s first safety video (as opposed to living demonstration).
The 13.3-inch wide seatback monitor in Premium was very responsive and
Scheduled departure time of 9:00 am came and went without an explanation. This being the first flight, I was on the lookout for mechanics or other signs of trouble. My concerns were abated when we pushed back 13 minutes later.
The ground crew gave us a hearty wave after pushback. Despite the
Expected flying time was 3.5 hours with cruising altitude of 38,000 feet.
At 9:36 am, we made a smooth take-off from Runway 06L at Toronto. Seated ahead of the GEnx-1B engines, the cabin was extremely quiet from where I was seated. Unfortunately, the crowd was reserved – there were no cheers or applause.
Clouds down below did not clear until over Lake Superior. One hour into the flight over Thunderbay, Ontario, service began with hot towels.
It was followed by pre-meal drinks accompanied with tasty Krispy Kernels Pretzels. Table cloths followed.
Breakfast was finally served starting with the front row at 1 hour 40 minutes into the flight. After staring at my lonely table cloth for a half hour, I finally received my meal two hours in. “First day jiggers,” admitted an apologetic Karl.
Despite the delay, the presentation is high-end. Style points continued with meal tray patterns matching the beverage and tray table. The emphasis was definitely on “Premium” and not “Economy”. Silverware, ceramic dishes, salt and pepper shakers – they are not something one expected to see on a WestJet flight years ago.
Fruit cup was fresh – very refreshing and much appreciated. The banana bread French toast had an interesting texture. Instead dense and bready, it was spongy and cake-like, not exactly what I expected.. The two sauces – berry compote and maple butter – complemented each other well. The coffee came pre-filled with the tray and I wished there were offers for refill during the meal.
After breakfast, there was a demonstration of WestJet’s unique implementation of Dreamliner’s mood lighting scheme.
After a simulated sunset, aurora borealis came up in night mode. Green and blue lights shimmered on the ceiling created a very convincing northern lights effect. WestJet’s distinctive implementation continued at sunrise with loon calls acting as a wake up alarm!
Under the Dreamliner signature entry arch at door 2, Premium passengers can find the snack bar. On this flight, snack baskets were filled with chips, nuts, beef jerky, and candy.
Since this was a short flight and with just one-hour flying remaining, flight attendants went through the Premium cabin and passed the snack basket around. On a typical long-haul flight, snacks would be put out on display for passengers’ choosing at their convenience.
The WestJet app provides a portal for internet connectivity during the flight. In addition, the app offers movie and television options streamed to your device. Though most passengers probably won’t utilize this feature since the seat back monitors are larger than most smartphone screens.
Upon descending, Captain Caldwell announced temperature in Calgary was -5 °C with light snow – typical winter weather there. Rosa returned and gave me a hearty handshake, “Mr. Ben – it has been a pleasure!”. She confirmed whether I got everything I needed.
At 11:20 pm Mountain Time, we touched down on Runway 35R at Calgary. Flight time was 3 hours 42 minutes wheels up to wheels down. Unlike departure, everyone gave a hearty applause.
Upon turning off the runway, we noticed a small crowd of spotters photographing our arrival. Taxiing past a quiet International Terminal for this time of day, it took a good 10 minutes get to our gate on the A concourse.
With a long turnaround time for the return flight back to Toronto, after most ordinary passengers had deplaned, the crew was relaxed letting us enthusiasts stay on board to take photos. I took the opportunity to get my menu signed by the pilots, my flight attendant Karl, and of course Rosa.
Inside the gate area, the celebration was just getting started. Announcements were made to encourage passengers to enjoy the food. The spread was abundant, selection varied – better than our departure at Toronto. Not surprising given Calgary is WestJet’s home.
WestJet’s President and CEO Ed Sims noted the importance of the Dreamliners to the home market. He remarked to the crowd, “we have designed these flights and flight timings around the people of Calgary and the people of Alberta. There is no other airline constructing such wonderful flight schedules specifically for Calgary and for Alberta. The rest of the world can fit around us…for once!”
My flight from Calgary to Las Vegas was in a 737-700 in the Plus cabin. Despite the extra legroom, seating was “Euro style” Business Class where the middle seat in the standard 3-3 economy seats was taken out of service with a cup holder/tray blocker.
The menu consisted of three cold meal choices – a sandwich, wrap, or cheese and crackers – all served in a box. Flight attendants kept beverage glasses filled. Snack basket with the same variety as on my 787 flight was served about one hour before landing.
WestJet is in the process of converting the 737 fleet’s Plus cabin to a true Premium cabin with 2-2 seating similar to those found on the 787 Dreamliner.
Later deliveries of the 737 MAX already have the new cabin. With the upgrade, WestJet will be able to offer a consistent experience both in the hard and soft products across the 737 and 787 fleet. The airline expects the 737 fleet to be converted by 2020.
The tag line for Premium is “Plus, reimagined” – and it truly was. What a difference it was to go from cold bistro boxes to heated plated meals, from finger food to silverware, from generic gray to thoughtful designer touches. WestJet really have stepped up their game in their new Premium offering.
Ultimately, the front cabins generates the most revenue and that’s where profits are made. In an earnings call with investors earlier this year, CEO Ed Sims reported that revenue growth in the premium cabins increased by 70% year-over-year in the fourth quarter 2018.
Into the summer 2019, booking strength in the premium cabins remain strong. Mr. Sims is bullish: we are happy with “early signs of premium cabin strength on the 787, which is new to us. At the outset…during our launch last year…we see no reason why we should be discounting those cabins, we are seeing very significant demand strength on all three (787 international) routes.”
As Dreamliner crew familiarizations flights within Canada continue, hopefully kinks with the service will be worked out as crews become familiar with their routine prior to international service. This will make WestJet a formidable competitor in the high revenue, high end market.