The arrival of a COVID-19 vaccine in Alberta and jurisdictions around the world this month means light at the end of a long tunnel for Calgary-based WestJet Airlines.
The company was brought to its knees in 2020 by a near collapse in air travel demand due to the pandemic and its resulting cascade of travel bans, restrictions and quarantine orders. Overall passenger volumes in 2020 were down nearly 90 per cent from the year before, and the airline was forced to reduce its employee head count from 14,000 prior to the pandemic to a low of 4,000.
The situation was and is so dire that in May, CEO Ed Sims told Postmedia that WestJet might never fully recover to its previous size, or attain its once-stated ambitions of becoming a truly global airline capable of flying all over the world with its fleet of Boeing 787 Dreamliners. But while the company still faces huge hurdles heading into 2021, Sims said the survival of WestJet is no longer in doubt.
“There was so much uncertainty in May. No one was really talking about vaccines at that time,” Sims said in a year-end exclusive interview with Postmedia. “WestJet will be here for many, many generations to come, and I wasn’t sure I could say that so boldly back in May. It is a relief that I can talk both internally and externally now about the speed of our recovery, rather than a question mark about the nature of our survival.”
Sims said he is hopeful the majority of the Canadian population will have had access to the vaccine program by June or July of 2021, something that should go a long way toward restoring traveller confidence and could give WestJet the opportunity to operate “as strong a summer as we possibly can.”
The airline is confident enough in its eventual COVID-19 recovery that it now is banking on a return to its former long-term strategy. The company could have made the decision this year to cancel the forward orders for the four remaining Dreamliners it is scheduled to take delivery of in 2021. It has not done that, meaning by the end of next year, it will have a fleet of 10 state-of-the-art long-haul 787 aircraft as originally planned…