WestJet to launch 'ultra-low-cost' no-frills carrier

WestJet says it will unveil a new, ultra-low-cost carrier later this year that will cater to Canadian flyers looking for cheaper fares with no frills.

The new service should take off late this year with a startup fleet of 10 high-density Boeing 737-800s, "subject to agreement with its pilots and any required regulatory approvals," the Calgary-based company said in a release Thursday.

"If you look at the ultra-low-cost carrier market around the world, this means a complete unbundling of services that would have historically or traditionally been included in the fare people pay when they are travelling," Richard Bartrem, WestJet's vice-president of marketing and communications, told CBC News. 

"So this is now paying for everything onboard that experience. That's from checked bags to bags that you bring in onboard with you, but ultimately driving lower costs for consumers."

No name yet 

WestJet's new yet-to-be-named offering will be in competition with NewLeaf, which launched at the beginning of 2016, offering ultra-low fares between several Canadian cities for as little as $89 for a one-way flight.

WestJet started in 1996 as a discount carrier with three aircraft serving five destinations in Western Canada.

The airline, together with regional carrier WestJet Encore, now offers scheduled flights to more than 100 destinations in North America, Central America, the Caribbean and Europe.​

Air Canada launched its discount brand Rouge flights in 2013 with service to destinations Europe and the Caribbean.

Bartrem says consumers around the world have started to embrace the idea of ultra-low-cost air travel, but Canadian airlines have so far been slow to respond, partly because of the country's unique geographical challenges.

"You are seeing airlines going to start coming into this market. We believe the best way for us to compete effectively, to bring lower fares for the consumer, is to launch our own ultra-low-cost carrier," he said. "We believe WestJet is well poised to bring that model to Canada."

AltaCorp Capital analyst Chris Murray says the launch of a so-called flanker brand complicates the plans of others looking to start an ultra-low-cost carrier in Canada and protects WestJet from market erosion.

"Historically, other ULCC's including Spirit Airlines and Ryanair have generated above average returns in their markets and we believe WestJet could see similar returns," Murray wrote in a report.

What frills?

Some CBC News readers reacted with sarcasm at WestJet's announcement, questioning what frills are left to be discarded. 

"How much more 'no frills' can it get? Your seat's an overturned milk crate, the meal is a packet of dust with a single M&M, and the entertainment is a dirty sock and a marker so you can make a puppet out of it?" wrote Jason Tremblay in the comment section.

"What are these frills we are supposedly getting now? Seats?" wrote John Smith.​

Other readers greeted the news more enthusiastically.

"If anyone can do this without leaving a bad experience for passengers, WestJet can," said Rick Engler on Facebook.

"I'm looking forward to what they come up with. Canada has always had the issue of the low pop density and large geographic expanse, so it is difficult to be competitive with our southern neighbour who has 10x the population"