Executives at WestJet believe the carrier’s decision to reduce seat pitch on its fleet of 17 Boeing 737-800s to accomodate a new premium economy offering on the aircraft will not irritate passengers who opt not to pay extra for the extended legroom product.
Calgary-based WestJet this month plans to begin cabin reconfigurations to create four rows of 36in-pitch premium economy seating across its fleet of 100 737-600/700/800 fleet. The carrier expects to complete the reconfiguration by year-end.
Part of the project entails a seat-pitch reduction in economy seating on the 737-800 fleet from 34in to 31-32in, and the addition of eights seats on the 166-seat aircraft. The 31-32in seat pitch is standard across WestJet’s 737-600s/700s.
While WestJet CEO Gregg Saretsky acknowledged during an analyst call that pitch on the -800s would “get a little tighter”, he remarked that the 17 -800s currently in operation account for a small portion of the carrier’s total aircraft, and the seat pitch change on the -800s would standardise pitch in economy seating across the carrier’s fleet. He also stressed that 31in pitch is “well within North American standards”. On the 737-600s/700s some rows with 32in pitch will shrink to 31in to accommodate the four rows dedicated to the premium economy offering.
Saretsky stated the carrier does not expect its guest to “feel any impact from the reconfiguration, but we’ll certainly get the revenue benefit”. He also explained some of the newer delivery 737s feature slimline seats, which allows WestJet to reduce seat pitch without compromising personal space.
WestJet has not disclosed specific pricing for the new premium economy product, but believes it can price the upsell between its current pricing for standard economy seating and fares Air Canada charges for its business class on domestic flights. Saretsky stated WestJet’s premium economy fares could run up to 50% lower than Air Canada’s current business class pricing.
Carrier CFO Vito Culmone remarked that WestJet for a long time has studied similar products in its US low-cost counterparts and the ways those carriers price their extended legroom offering based on length of haul. “We have a pretty good view going in and we’ll adjust as we go,” he explains.
WestJet’s targeted year-end timeframe to complete the premium economy reconfigurations coincides with the carrier’s planned roll-out of a new “web store front” designed to enhance the carrier’s merchandising capability. Company EVP of sales, marketing and guest experience Bob Cummings says WestJet has been late in utilising merchandising functionality, but at the same time the delay has allowed the company to study the approaches taken by other airlines.
The merchandising strategy ties into some of the amenities WestJet is contemplating selling passengers as part of a premium economy package that could include priority boarding, refunding and food and beverages. WestJet is examining selling the premium economy in advance and is also considering offering the product at check-in. “All of those details will be made public as we begin to sell it,” said Saretsky.
WestJet by year-end also aims to formally unveil its in-flight entertainment strategy going forward after launching trials with Samsung Galaxy tabs in June. The Financial Post recently reported, however, that WestJet is developing a wireless IFE solution to stream content to passengers’ own devices, and that development of the system is “being driven in part by the fact that current WestJet satellite provider Bell will switch to a new satellite system this summer that will shrink the area of service for WestJet’s current live-TV system”.
WestJet executives today cautioned that the carrier’s new IFE product will take some time to develop as it secures requisite regulatory approvals for the technology to support its offering. Cummings noted that both satellite and tablet technology are “moving very quickly”.
In its final decision regarding a premium economy offering, WestJet appears to have achieved the best of both worlds. Previously Saretsky said the pitch range across its fleet allowed WestJet to contemplate a premium seating option or an increase in seating density by shrinking pitch to a uniform standard. On the -800 model, WestJet is attaining both those objectives.