WestJet’s new Encore service won’t be making stops in the city of Brandon — at least not yet.
On Monday, after much anticipation, the airline announced the first round of Canadian cities to receive the regional carrier.
New non-stop daily service will be launched in Fort St. John and Nanaimo, B.C., beginning June 24.
"This is a very big day," said WestJet spokesman Robert Palmer. "We had 32 communities that came to see us last year in June, to our Calgary campus and all of them gave very unique and compelling reasons for why we should fly out of their community. These are simply the first two."
The service will be operated by WestJet Encore’s fleet of Bombardier Q400 NextGen aircraft, and includes new daily service between Vancouver and Victoria.
Palmer said the decision to choose Fort St. John and Nanaimo was based on a number of criteria.
"In terms of Fort St. John, we looked at the diversity and the strength of the local economy, which is based on agriculture, oil and gas, forestry and so forth," Palmer said. "There’s a very strong business traffic market that goes back and forth between Alberta and Fort St. John."
Brandon was one of the communities that presented a business case to WestJet last June. The creative pitch included identification tags with phrases linked to Brandon, postcards with Brandon landscape and streetscape scenes, fake boarding passes to Brandon in a WestJet envelope and a mockup of a WestJet airline magazine.
Other communities known to have made presentations include Terrace, B.C., Radium Hot Springs, B.C., Thompson, Yorkton, Sask., Cold Lake, Alta., Medicine Hat, Alta., Prince Rupert, B.C., and Cranbrook, B.C.
Monday’s announcement follows a 2012 profit of $242.4 million for the airline, up 63 per cent from the previous year.
As part of Brandon’s major push to woo WestJet, a petition was launched, which garnered more than 10,000 signatures.
"We had an excellent presentation from Brandon," Palmer said. "And certainly we can appreciate that they’re very disappointed. What we can tell them, however, is that we are really just getting going. This is just the first two cities. This is by no means the final list, and they’re well aware of that."
Sandy Trudel, the city’s director of economic development, said she is not looking at the announcement as a disappointment.
"Brandon wasn’t expecting to be first out of the door," Trudel said. "Obviously you always hope, but we weren’t expecting it. To me it’s positive that it’s happening, and it’s happening starting in the west."
Trudel said she remains optimistic about Brandon’s chances.
"We have a really solid businesses case that we’ve presented to them," she said. "We’re really committed to working in partnership with WestJet, should they provide service, so I think those are two really positive points. The one that we don’t know is what the timing looks like."
WestJet expects to make a second round of announcements before the end of 2013, however Palmer couldn’t say when that will be or exactly how many more communities.
WestJet Encore will take delivery of its first two Canadian-built, 78-seat Bombardier Q400 turboprop aircraft in June and add five more by the end of the year. WestJet has firm orders for a total of 20 Q400s and options for an additional 25 over the next six years.
One local business that isn’t disappointed to hear the Wheat City is not on yet the list is Brandon Air Shuttle.
"It would fit in to some expansion plans that we have," owner Reg Hickmott said.
Brandon Air Shuttle hauls as many as 500 travellers per week in passenger vans from Brandon to Winnipeg to catch flights.
"I fully expect (WestJet) to service Brandon, sometime in the future, but just not right now," Hickmott said. "I didn’t think they’d come in this quick because usually when an airline starts up or expands they do it in stages, and really what they’re doing is competing with Air Canada, so they’re going to be doing those routes first."
Brandon Chamber of Commerce president Nate Andrews said he wasn’t surprised to see Brandon left out of the first announcement.
"I think if we were being realistic about this, we probably thought we weren’t going to be in that top two tier anyways," he said. "We’re still positive going forward that there’s a good business case here for it."
Andrews said with the activity in Manitoba’s oil sector, CFB Shilo and other sectors in the region, Westman would serve an air carrier well.
Regular air service in Brandon would have a positive impact on business and economic development, as well as help attract more events to the area.
"We’ve been really creative in selling all the ways we can still get you here," Trudel said. "But at the end of the day … if you don’t have regularly scheduled air service, you don’t even get the opportunity to make the sell."