Travel Life speaks with the CEO of one of Canada’s most beloved brands and one of the airline industry’s most dynamic leaders. Gregg Saretsky shares some of the secrets to WestJet’s success, some insight into its iconic company culture and gives us a glimpse of the boundaries being broken as WestJet gives its competition a run for its money as it enters into the transatlantic market.
Q. With your educational background, you could have taken a very different career path. What attracted you to the airline industry?
A. Universities love to have me come and speak because my story has taken lots of twists and turns. I thought I wanted to be a doctor. I studied science during high school, did a microbiology and chemistry double major, applied to medical school, got accepted and then thought: “I don’t think I want to be a doctor anymore.” I was at The Bank of Montreal in commercial lending for a bit. I had worked as a flight attendant and an agent to pay my way through university, so when I decided to leave the bank, I thought: “What the hell, I’m going into the airline business.” At the time, Canadian Airlines was restructuring, so I joined a group called Vision 2000 in 1985, which was looking at where the airline could be in 15 years.
Q. I heard some of your family is also in the airline business?
A. Yes, my mother, my father and two of my brothers who are captains on the 777; one with Air Canada and the other with Cathay Pacific. My father was flight director for Air Canada and my mother was the manager of the word-processing centre at Canadian Pacific Airlines in the days before computers.
Q. So you grew up travelling quite a bit?
A. I got that wanderlust early and travelled a ton. My parents both loved travelling and there were five of us. My gosh, when I think of us going standby with seven people. It always worked out, but you have to learn to be patient and go with the flow.
Q. How do you think having worked as a flight attendant influences your decisions when the flight crew makes up such a large percentage of WestJetters?
A. Well, I think I have a pretty good appreciation of the job. I understand how difficult it can be: rewarding and difficult. Dealing with the travelling public and the flight attendant’s role in particular is really where the buck stops. The guest experience is made or broken on the quality of the inflight experience and the flight crews have the ability to make it a great flight or a ho-hum flight, so I really respect them for the work they do having been there and done that!
Q. Westjet has really started to grow and develop alliances and partnerships with other airlines’ networks. How has that impacted your business?
A. We are getting a lot of traction. I would say we serve about 90 destinations in 19 countries with our aircraft and that number grows to more than 150 when we add our codeshare partners. As a result, we are seeing more guests getting on WestJet aircraft who are travelling with foreign passports than even two to three years ago. On any given day, there are between 2,500 to 3,000 partner guests entering our network from places like China, Korea and Europe, so it’s really changed the face of our business as a result of that volume.
Q. I read that you started at the company as VP of WestJet Vacations. How do you
feel that division of the company is differentiated from other tour operators in the Canadian marketplace?
A. Let me first say that I loved that job. In whichever position you can self-actualize, for me it was that job. What makes us different, I think is that culture comes into the entire
experience. It starts when you book and finishes when you get back and it’s all the WestJet encounters along the way. When you buy a WestJet Vacations package and something goes wrong, you know without a doubt you’re going to be cared for. A recent example is Hurricane Odile in Los Cabos. Our guests were enjoying the first few days of their vacation and then the hurricane hit. We ran humanitarian rescue flights. It didn’t matter whether or not the guests had bought a package from WestJet, we brought Canadians back home. Anyone who did buy a WestJet Vacations package received a full credit for their vacation package in WestJet dollars. So I think that says that Westjet Vacations really stands behind its product, and that you can buy with certainty and know you’re going to be looked after. It’s the hallmark of our brand.
Q. How is Los Cabos doing and when do you expect it to be up and running?
A. Well we are back flying now. It’s slow. Bookings are down considerably, but I am looking at the trajectory and it appears by the time we get into the first quarter next year, demand should be back to where it was pre-hurricane. That community really depends on tourism, so they are delighted to have us back.
Q. My 12-year-old son is obsessed with basketball and recently he made me watch this inspirational video based on Stephen Curry’s career called Success Is Not An Accident. I thought that was a great message. We read so much about the success of WestJet and the company culture. Do you think that is WestJet’s secret to success?
A. Again, I would say the success comes from being that brand associated with value and the culture of care that our people are empowered to use whenever the situation calls on it. At the end of the day, all airlines do all the same things. We fly similar planes, we charge similar fares, we go to the same destinations. What makes the difference are the encounters guests have with our people. What makes our people different is their
ownership in the company.
Q. Some thought the announcement of the first-bag fee was going to be extremely unpopular, but what I can see from the industry, although begrudgingly, it has been accepted. Do you think that decision was inevitable and what impact has it had on the customers’ bottom line?
A. I think [the first-bag fee] is ultimately apropos when you get customers telling us
they want lower airfares. About 25 per cent of our guests don’t check a bag and use
carry-on, and yet they were subsidizing the 75 per cent that do. So by completely unbundling now, if you never checked a bag and you always carried on, there is no extra cost to you. Those who decide to continue to check a bag will now have to pay a $25 fee, but the base fares will be lower than they otherwise would have been.
Q. Can you tell us about your inflight entertainment plans?
A. We are very excited about our new Panasonic inflight entertainment and
connectivity (IFEC) solution. The first aircraft is being installed this month, including brand new slimline seats with 110-volt and USB power to every seat. The new system will
feature satellite-based WiFi with internet speeds not dissimilar to what most guests would experience in their own homes. For guests who don’t bring their own WiFi-enabled device, we will have a small number of tablets for rent on board. We expect the system to be fully operational early in the new year following system approvals by the FAA and Transport Canada. We anticipate that more than 50 per cent of the Boeing 737 fleet will be converted by the end of 2015 and the balance of our Boeing fleet by 2016.
Q. If you look at where the company is now and your vision for it when you joined in 2009, how does that compare?
A. Well, we’ve come a long way, we’re doing a lot of things differently and I think we are thankfully meeting with a lot of success. Over the past year, our guest satisfaction scores have improved, our on-time performance has improved and we are working hard to keep fares lower. We added a new airline 17 months ago, WestJet Encore, which flies into a whole bunch of smaller communities in Canada that were delighted to receive us because we dropped fares by 30 to 50 per cent.
Q. The travelling public was so excited to hear the announcement about adding the transatlantic flights to Dublin. Do you think that this addition brings you closer to your goal of being one of the top five airlines internationally by 2016?
A. Yes, I think the ethos of our brand is all around affordable air travel with a guest
experience. This is where we are actually going to break some moulds because people think long-haul international travel means flat beds and elaborate catering. Dublin was the first part of the experiment. Service to Scotland next summer will be the second part. When we first started talking about going to Ireland, the statistics only showed 16 passengers each way from St. John’s, but I believed the statistics hid the real answer because the market had not been given the opportunity to be liberated from higher fares.
When we launched with the introductory $199 fares, we sold 11,000 tickets in 24 hours. It was the most successful new launch in our 18-year history and the most full route we flew all summer. The flight costs a bit more now, but it created a buzz and $299 or $399 is still one heck of a deal. I have no doubt that this model can continue to be successful. People will give up some of their creature comforts, but we’re still going to offer a great on-board experience.
Q. What do you think your competition is going to say about that?
A. Well, there is a lot of competition out there but long-haul travel isn’t a one-size fits all kind of product.
Q. I hear that we share a love of Loreto, a Mexico destination that has just been added to the WestJet schedule. What is it that you like about Loreto?
A. I love the fact that it offers eco travel, the soft adventure and the fact that it is one of the first Spanish Missions. It’s quiet and relaxed and laid back like Los Cabos was 30 years ago.
Q. In a recent issue of Travel Life we published an article in our Pay It Forward feature about a family travelling to Kenya to help build schools. I hear you had a similar experience recently.
A. I just had a fantastic life experience that I got to share with my wife and two of my three kids. We were in Kenya with Free The Children and Me To We which is a relatively new charity relationship we have formed under WestJet Cares for Kids. We went to Kenya and were involved in building a school. The thing that I love most about what they do is it is not only about the schools they build. They are really teaching the community how to be self-sustaining and generate income for themselves. During the experience, we were invited into a Masai house, a little hut made of straw and dung that was maybe four feet high. We spent an afternoon there collecting firewood with the family, seeing how they cooked, seeing how they took care of sanitation. The community is being taught how to dig latrines, sterilize water and dig wells to help prevent malaria, hepatitis and food-borne diseases. It was very moving for my family to see how this charity effort is really changing the way people live. Since I’ve been back, I was elected chair for We Day Alberta. My son, who’s at the University of British Columbia, has started a We Group on campus and my son in Seattle is involved with We Act Day Seattle.