features WestJet plans for 737 ‘densification’ with Swoop integration

WestJet will add an extra row of seats at the back of its 737s in an effort to offer more affordable tickets.
Avatar for Brent Jang By Brent Jang | December 19, 2023

Estimated reading time 5 minutes, 51 seconds.

WestJet Group’s decision to integrate its ultra-low-cost carrier (ULCC) Swoop into its mainline operations will lead to seating changes in the narrow-body Boeing 737s in the fleet.  

Swoop operated its final flight on Oct. 28, 2023, marking its end after five years and four months as a separate WestJet unit. Now, the ULCC’s 10 Boeing 737-800s and six Boeing 737 Max 8 aircraft will be folded into WestJet’s fleet and repainted with the mainline’s teal brand colour — retiring Swoop’s signature magenta livery.  

Consumer groups have cautioned that “ULCC” refers to airlines striving to control operating costs and doesn’t necessarily connote bargain-basement airfares.  

Still, WestJet chief executive officer Alexis von Hoensbroech said seating changes in the 737 cabins mean WestJet will be adding an extra row of seats at the back of the plane in an effort to offer more affordable tickets.  

“We decided that instead of offering 16 Swoop airplanes and the pure play, ultra-low-cost offering, we will actually offer ultra-low-cost fares and products on all our 180 airplanes,” said von Hoensbroech in a phone interview.  

Galen Burrows Photo

“So we will go from 174 to 180 seats, and this densification will happen mainly at the back of the plane,” he continued. “The idea is that those seats are then offered to those people that are actually looking for an ultra-low-cost offering.”  

While the seat pitch would be reduced in economy class, WestJet is emphasizing the design of the new seats will ensure passengers have enough leg room. The airline’s regional Encore fleet of 47 De Havilland Dash 8-400 turboprops will not be part of the process of reconfiguring seats. Noteworthy is the fact that WestJet also placed orders in 2022 for at least 50 Boeing 737 Max 10s, the largest model in the Max family.  

WestJet and former Swoop pilots represented by the Air Line Pilots Association, International, ratified a four-year collective agreement in June, retroactive to the beginning of 2023. Soon after pilots ratified the contract, WestJet announced plans for Swoop’s shutdown. 

The Calgary-based carrier is also integrating Sunwing Airlines into the mainline operations, aiming for completion by October 2024. Sunwing Vacations is being kept as an operating brand, with marketing alongside the smaller WestJet Vacations.  

“Together, this is going to be the vacation and tour operator powerhouse for Canada,” said von Hoensbroech, who became WestJet CEO in February 2022. The previous CEO, Ed Sims, retired at the end of 2021, and Harry Taylor filled in briefly as interim CEO.  

Canada’s large geographic area and widely dispersed population have proven to be challenging for the airline industry. There are eight major population centres in Canada, and once airlines go beyond them, making the economics work in smaller markets can be difficult, said von Hoensbroech.  

“The stage lengths are really long, so the costs of flights are usually higher in Canada than they are in other countries,” he said.  

He noted taxes, airport fees, and other levies contribute to the total ticket price paid by consumers, making it harder for airlines to stimulate budget-conscious travelling in Canada.  

Though plans call for retiring the Swoop brand name, the general concept of WestJet having a discount fare class is reminiscent of a move by Air Canada two decades ago.  

Air Canada shut down Tango as a low-cost carrier and retired its purple brand colour in the fall of 2003. Air Canada operated Tango for less than two years before closing the unit, but offered Tango as the name of its lowest-cost fare class of seating for consumers buying tickets from 2003 to 2018.  

Bob Cummings, who started as Swoop’s president in April 2022 and served in that role until the final flight 18 months later, said in a phone interview that he is “very proud of the company and passing the baton.”  

He was no stranger to WestJet when he took over as Swoop president, having previously served as an executive vice-president at WestJet.  

Swoop played an important role in WestJet’s history, including operating during the tumultuous times of the pandemic, said Cummings, who describes Swoop as “the first true ULCC model” in Canada.   

“It paved the way, and it was a big influence into WestJet’s strategy and where it has ended up,” said Cummings.  

He was the executive responsible for helping start up Swoop, before he first left WestJet in late 2018. The first Swoop president was Steven Greenway, followed by Charles Duncan.  

During Duncan’s tenure as Swoop president, flight attendants represented by the Canadian Union of Public Employees ratified a five-year collective agreement in September 2021, which took effect on Oct. 1. The deal remains in effect until Sept. 30, 2026. 

Today’s workforce stands in contrast to the non-union roots of WestJet, which launched in 1996 with three planes and five destinations. Over the years, WestJet gradually expanded to become the country’s second-largest commercial carrier, after Air Canada. In late 2019, months before travel restrictions were imposed during the Covid-19 pandemic, Toronto-based Onex Corp. acquired WestJet for $3.5 billion.   

While Cummings has left WestJet for a second time, he said the aviation industry remains near and dear to his heart.  

“I don’t think I’m done yet,” he shared. 

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  1. Considering how cramped I was on my last 2 WestJet flights; this plan sounds horrific to me. The 737Max seats were already causing me lower back pain with the current spacing.

    1. Economy passengers are just cattle in a cattle truck to the airlines. They would double stack us if the aircraft could get off the ground with the extra weight.

      1. true so true 2years ago I flew to YYZ then I had someknee room to remove my shoes this year HA had the backside if shins ptessed against the seat I was stting

  2. If economy class passengers don’t like it, then they shouldn’t have spend the previous 60 years chasing the cheapest possible flights.

  3. They should change the name because Westjet is not the Westjet we knew when it first started. Just another “cookie cutter” gouging airline!

  4. So sick of monopolistic airlines!What Canada is missing is any competition.Until that’s corrected we will continue to get gouged,as with telecoms banks supermarkets and oil companies!

  5. We actually look forward to cheaper flights within Canada. Many of us have families, in particular, the West and I don’t mind sitting for 3 or 4 hours just to get there. Typically another 2 hour drive after that and the same coming back. Loved Swoop and love Hamilton Airport.

  6. here is a fab idea
    for a whole month everyone shud fly wit Air Can then the next all shud fly wit West Jet maybe they will realize how gouging they are

  7. I hardly can walk after a flight with WestJet from Edmonton to Toronto I swear not going to fly with WestJet anymore.
    I fly in Europe their tickets is cheaper and more leg room and they serve with food.

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