KEITH BORKOWSKY/BRANDON SUN
Brandon economic development officer Sandy Trudel (left) and Brandon Mayor Shari Decter Hirst (right) speak with a Bombardier representative while seated in the company's new plane, the Q400.
CALGARY — Wooing WestJet was "a little like speed dating or ‘Dragon’s Den,’" said Brandon Mayor Shari Decter Hirst after the city’s delegation made its pitch for air service on Thursday.
Brandon city manager Scott Hildebrand holds a laptop bag with materials used during Brandon's presentation before WestJet representatives at the company's headquarters during Regional Day. Company officials were presented with similar bags with information as Brandon made its case to get air service. (KEITH BORKOWSKY/BRANDON SUN)
"We had to really ramp up the energy, which of course is really easy to do when you are excited about this as we are," Decter Hirst said from WestJet’s Calgary headquarters.
CALGARY -- Brandon's delegation to WestJet's Regional Day saw first hand the type of plane the company will use for its new regional air service in 2013.
With hangar doors flung wide open towards Calgary's downtown and sprawling snow-capped mountain ranges, a Bombardier Q400 turboprop plane was available for viewing with staff on hand to explain key features.
Once inside, Brandon Mayor Shari Decter Hirst, city manager Scott Hildebrand, city staff Sandy Trudel and Tim Sanderson, along with Brandon Chamber of Commerce president Nate Andrews checked out the overhead bins and the leather-clad seats in the 78-seat plane.
"When you talk about the Q400 and its 78 seats, you look at a plane that has roughly half the seats (of the average WestJet Boeing 737)," said WestJet public relations manager Robert Palmer.
The interior of the plane, with aisle ceilings high enough for the tallest members of Brandon's delegation to stand up completely, was brightly lit using LED lights. Leg room was also comparable to the Boeing 737 used on WestJet's main routes.
The plane also included comfort, noise-cancelling features that remove vibrations as well as noise from its cabins, and will compliment the more fuel-efficient engines and propellers that offer greater speed than competing aircraft, according to Bombardier and WestJet handouts.
WestJet will begin its regional air service in the second half of 2013 with 20 Bombardier Q400s, with plans to add as many as 25 more within five to seven years.
"We also had some really good people listening to our presentation, people who understand about marketing, who understood about roots and the value proposition of coming to Brandon."
Company officials asked questions about Brandon’s airport infrastructure and the market potential for business.
That allowed the Brandon representatives — including city manager Scott Hildebrand, economic development officer Sandy Trudel, transportation director Tim Sanderson and Brandon Chamber of Commerce president Nate Andrews — to help build the case.
WestJet is expected to launch its new regional air service in the second half of 2013, WestJet public relations manager Robert Palmer said, adding the airline has not determined how many communities will be included in the first phase of the regional service strategy.
"I think it’s safe to say (the first phase) will be a handful of communities," Palmer said. "It won’t be a huge number, but it won’t be one or two either."
Palmer said the decision to launch the regional air service was because WestJet saw communities that were either underserved by existing airlines, or were communities with only one air carrier providing service.
"There are many and many of them," Palmer said. "We also looked at those communities and saw those that have air service as being held hostage by one carrier. There’s no competition and the fares are very high. One of the mandates for a regional airline for us is to liberate Canadians from smaller communities from the high cost of air travel."
Brandon made its 25-minute presentation alongside delegates from Terrace, B.C., and Radium Hot Springs, B.C. Other communities known to have made presentations include Thompson, Yorkton, Sask., Cold Lake, Alta., Medicine Hat, Alta., Prince Rupert, B.C, Nanaimo, B.C., Cranbrook, B.C., and Fort St. John, B.C.
By hosting Regional Day at its headquarters, WestJet offered more than 30 communities a chance to make their pitch to tell the airline why "they are the right community for WestJet."
"If you think about it, it’s not all that different from when a major industry comes to town," Palmer said. They are asking the same questions. What is the local economy like? What’s the health of the local economy? What is the workforce like? What is the breakdown in terms of industry? What are the major industries? Is it a one-horse town, or are there a number of major industries that support the local economy? What is the community’s previous history with air travel? Does it have previous experience? We would study that experience because we can look at if they had air service, did they use it?"
Adding communities to its service area gives the airline a chance to ‘connect the dots,’ Palmer said. For example, communities like Brandon, located within two hours of a major airport with WestJet service had residents driving in to the major airports to catch a flight.
"In order to make it easier for people to access air service from major Canadian cities, it made sense to have a regional airline that brings people into those airports and our Boeing 737 network," Palmer said. "The average stage length for the airline will be between one to two hours in the air. There are lots of communities sitting just outside of major Canadian cities that would benefit from this service."
The airline has plans to buy 20 Bombardier Q400 turboprops and could eventually have as many as 45 planes on regional routes that seat 78 people and the regional network will provide service to two major hubs, Calgary and Toronto. Palmer said the larger Boeing 737 jets already work in a similar way, with Calgary and Toronto serving as hubs.
Palmer said three types of communities will be looked at when WestJet makes up its mind on destinations: communities without air service; an underserved community with air service and locations where WestJet flies using Boeing 737 jets, but could operate more efficiently using the new Bombardiers because they don’t have direct flights to some locations. For example, Winnipeg flights to Saskatoon must fly to Calgary first before passengers reach their destination.
"The numbers work when you look at a smaller aircraft," Palmer said. "This is a tremendous opportunity for us to expand our service and bring the WestJet guest service to more Canadians in a more convenient way. If you can fly out of your home community, why wouldn’t you want to do that? We did serve Brandon once upon a time."
Palmer said for the community to be successful, it would need to be able to sustain daily air service because that makes it easier to schedule aircraft use.
"If it’s less than daily, then you are looking at some tough economics," Palmer said.
Andrews said for that reason, it was important for him to be on hand and bolster the economic case for WestJet to fly to the Wheat City.
"The vibe we got from WestJet was that they were happy to see the contingent involved both the business community as well as the city," Andrews said. "We had some good response from that."
Andrews said he answered questions related to Brandon’s growing business sector and their travel needs.
"Our connections with the oil industry and the military and the opportunity to travel west are growing, so a lot of those things they know already," Andrews said. "The packages prepared by economic development are quite extensive."
While this was a major series of meetings for the communities involved, WestJet set up the day to be as relaxed as possible, Andrews said.
"(WestJet CEO) Gregg Saretsky said at our meet and greet on Wednesday to have some fun with it," Andrews said. "They said we’re here to learn from you and we are looking to collect some data that we don’t know about. It was very relaxing. The whole executive team was very cordial."
The delegations were given a tour of the company’s hangars at Calgary International Airport, where they saw the plane the airline has chosen to service the new regional air service, the Bombardier Q400, as well as training equipment and maintenance of a Boeing 737.
WestJet will not announce any decisions on the new air service until either the end of 2012 or the early months of 2013.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition June 29, 2012