When the first WestJet flight landed at McCarran International Airport on Sept. 9, 2005, it marked the airline’s continued growth from its western Canada base but also raised doubts among top management.
They were sure they could fill planes during the often brutal Canadian winter. “But I remember going into the summer period, we were flying twice a week between Calgary and Las Vegas and debating internally whether the market would support it,” said Scott Avery, WestJet’s vice president of network planning.
Those nagging fears have long since vanished, with the local schedule up to 81 flights a week to 11 cities during the winter. In fact, WestJet is about to become, if it hasn’t already, the first foreign airline to carry one million people in and out of McCarran in one year.
WestJet spokesman Robert Palmer said this will likely happen during the weekend, but did not have a precise day or flight.
The milestone looms large due to the efforts McCarran and the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority have invested in trying to boost visitor counts from other countries. They went so far as to attract the World Routes conference in October, a convention of airline schedule planners, in order to show off the city in person.
While other international carriers have come and gone, WestJet has grown every year to the point that the 932,000 passengers it has carried this year through November is double that of No. 2 Air Canada and accounts for one-third of McCarran’s international traffic. McCarran’s international passenger counts have increased by 928,000 from 2006 through 2012, with WestJet alone up 756,000 during that span.
By another measure, Air Canada had 498,000 passengers in 2006, slightly more than last year.
In addition, said Avery, WestJet sells not only seats but vacation packages into Las Vegas. According to company statistics, it sells more local hotels rooms than any other outlet in Canada.
To be sure, the once-turbocharged growth rates have slowed to single-digit percentages in three of the past four years. The schedules into the first half of 2014 show about the same number of flights as 2013 but single-digit seat increases, as some routes get the Boeing 737-800 with 174 seats, 38 more than the Boeing 737-400 that has been WestJet’s mainstay.
“Las Vegas has a lot of peak travel times,” Avery said, so the larger planes create “better seat economics.”
But Avery noted that as the passenger counts have risen, the growth rates have naturally declined.
However, he said WestJet still had plans for more Las Vegas service beyond the larger seats, known in the industry as upgauging. “I don’t think yield (average fares) is a detriment,” he said. “There is lots of demand in the market, lots to offer even for families.”
The future will likely include extending what is now seasonal service to some cities and perhaps adding others, although he did not disclose any. “There is a tremendous potential to introduce Las Vegas to even more Canadians,” he said.
Started in 1996, WestJet modeled itself in part on Southwest Airlines by promoting low fares, point-to-point service and no first class. However, it does set aside three rows of economy seats with extra leg room and a fare that includes food and drink.
It also has adopted an open-collar corporate environment open to some unusual promotions. For example, WestJet annually puts out a special April Fool’s Day press release; this year, WestJet announced its “furry family”program, that would allow pets to roam freely through the cabin.
For the holiday season, it set up a kiosk at the Toronto airport for passengers on a certain flight to tell their wish to a video Santa. When they arrived at Calgary, WestJet arranged to have their wrapped presents pop out of the baggage claim carousel.
Contact reporter Tim O’Reiley at email@example.com or at 702-387-5290.