WestJetters and the 'Mom and Pop Shop' They Own

Dec. 14, 2006
Are you a business person spending way too much time and money flying between destinations? There is a solution. Start your own airline.

That's what WestJet's Founder, Chairman and CEO Clive Beddoe did successfully and now, eleven years in the making, "Mom and Pop" are the proud parents of one of Canada's top 100 employers - with the distinction of being named the second most respected corporation in a survey conducted by Ipsos-Reid in 2003. "The [Canadian] prices were always high," explains Gillian Bentley, media and public relations coordinator for WestJet and long-time friend of Beddoe. "[Clive] couldn't get his head around paying $800 for a round trip from Calgary to Vancouver for a one-hour flight." Beddoe began piloting his own plane, parking and leasing it at Tim Morgan's Morgan Air Services and together, with two other Calgary entrepreneurs, decided to start their own airline.

Following the primary examples of Southwest Airlines and Morris Air, WestJet developed a comprehensive business plan and financial model based on a commitment to strong management and employee relations that launched flight operations in 1996 with 220 employees, three Boeing 737-200 aircraft and five destinations across western Canada. Today, they are a publicly-owned company, having added seven more cities to its original western service area and created an eastern network comprised of 13 eastern Canadian cities with Toronto as the hub. Transborder service commenced in fall 2004 to ten destinations in the U.S. and Toronto-Nassau flights and WestJet Vacations were announced last month.


Most operations, when it comes to airports, are regulated and enforce stringent Safety Management Systems (SMS). Aircraft maintenance, flight operations, air traffic control, aircraft certification, airport construction standards and the list goes on. But when it comes to ground handling operations, though the number one priority is safety, it has yet to be regulated. According to John Glenn, coordinator of standards and procedures for ground operations, WestJet considers itself "regulated" and operates based on that premise because they want to create a situation in the ground industry that enforces the ground handling unit to operate in a manner that Glenn dubs as "extreme safety." "The strategy and philosophy that we live under are [WestJet's] current values of developing a TAC (Turn Around Crew) Team…and it's a philosophy that sticks," says Glenn. Changing the label of "ramp agents" or "station attendants" to TAC Team provides an environment of team spirit, confidence and pride according to Glenn, which resonates on the ramp in efficient and safe operations. To compliment the SMS and TAC philosophies, WestJet has just signed off on the first version of the company's safety manual and has incorporated a safety team dedicated to the airports whose sole focus is safety and efficiency.

The profit-sharing nonunionized workforce does their own training utilizing Super Structure's Aviation Quality Database (ADQ) which tracks, categorizes, and manages incident reports-balancing safety and efficiency. "It's neat to hear guys that are in their twenties talk about investing and being an owner in a company," says Dale Tinevez, vice president, airport operations in Calgary. "It's not magical … the ability to be an owner is engrained in our folks, therefore they act like an owner."


WestJet has been doing its own ground handling in Calgary for the past four years and recently added Fort McMurray and Grand Prairie. In Calgary, WestJet has approximately 250 TAC agents, with a diminishing gap (less than three to one) in the ratio of men to women on the ramp. WestJet also owns nine of the fourteen gates they utilize. Daily Duty Officers (DDC) determine the necessary "manpower" a TAC Team needs on a flight. An average of four crew members are provided for a turn; five if it's an 800 Series plane carrying a heavy load. "One of the things we are also proud of is our quick turn around time," says Glenn. "To do a high-frequency 30 minute turn with a 700 aircraft, 136 guests on board and especially now with all the bags that are being loaded due to the new security regulations; that's pretty good."

A mathematical formula calculated by British Economics professor Ian Walker has found that time actually is money. Just in case you are interested, the formula is: V=(W((100-t)/100))/C, where ‘V' is the value of an hour, ‘W' is a person's hourly wage, ‘t' is the tax rate and ‘C' is the local cost of living. Walker says this process can show people just how valuable their time is in relation to any task they have to perform. Performing an average of 65 turns a day in Calgary, WestJet has put the "time is money" theory into practice by introducing Dewbridge's Over-the-Wing boarding bridge and, in mid-December 2006, will be the trial customer for field-testing the NMC Wollard Mongoose, an innovative angled beltloader that will also trim ramp hours by one, sometimes even two ramp agents.


In Canada, compared to the more expansive ground handling operations at several of the major U.S. airports, the WestJet TAC Team has intentionally developed an individualized approach. "Here with our TAC Team, it's… more personalized," says Tinevez. "We have a bit more fun with people. The support team quite often brings down glove warmers and hot chocolate on a weekly or bi-weekly basis because we want to take care of our people." In fact, there is a blog on the internet giving examples of tongue and cheek announcements made by both the pilots and the flight attendants. The blogger comments, "You gotta love the Canadian sense of humor! WestJet is definitely an employer that encourages their employees to have fun at work!"

Speaking of fun, WestJet held its first Ground Ops Olympics sponsored by Boeing, FMC, Marsh Inc. and TUG Technologies on September 15, 2005 at the WestJet hangar in Calgary, Alberta. "The event was our way of saying thank you to our handling partners, such as ATS, Penauille Servisiar, Swissport and Worldwide Flight Services. It was a chance for the handlers to showcase their best agents from around the country," explains Bentley. "Turnout was great. We had agents from across Canada from Victoria to Moncton that joined into our friendly competition." WestJet ramp agents participated in events such as the "pushback challenge", the "chock-put" and the "cart slalom" as part of the overall competition. They are hoping to turn the Ground Ops Olympics into a traditional event every two years.

Declining fuel prices, a resilient Canadian economy, rational pricing from Air Canada and the disappearance of Halifax-based CanJet all bode well for the Calgary carrier according to analyst Ben Cherniavsky of Raymond James.

Air Canada remains WestJet's primary competitor, though they have yet to achieve the low-cost structure that has been the foundation of WestJet's success. Ironically, Canadians are willing to pay higher fares to fly now… though still not nearly as much as Beddoe paid 15 years ago. Beddoe stepped aside as the president of WestJet in the first week of September 2006 and appointed Sean Durfy, 40, who has had the role of executive vice president of sales and marketing and airports. According to Bentley, Clive will continue as chairman and CEO for WestJet, but honestly, if he is anything like Herb Kelleher, the man who's model set the stage for WestJet and who's still very much involved in the industry, we will continue to hear and learn from Clive "Pop" Beddoe of this "Mom and Pop Shop" in Canada.