WestJet’s new boss takes control as demand for travel ramps up after long pandemic slowdown

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WestJet’s Chief Financial Officer Harry Taylor on Monday became interim Chief Executive Officer.Todd/Korole

WestJet’s new top executive takes over as the Calgary-based airline after a long recession during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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WestJet Chief Financial Officer Harry Taylor became interim chief executive officer on Monday at a crucial time for the country’s second largest airline – optimism, expectations and tensions have rarely been higher.

“What keeps me up at night is I worry about my people,” Mr. Taylor said in a phone interview from Calgary. “We have, this organization has been through the whole world through a devastating, catastrophic event. We were on the sharp edge, we put people off – some permanently, some temporarily. Now we try to rebuild are doing.”

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The airline is trying to hire 2,000 people to meet rising demand as passengers book flights or revisit sun spots to see family and friends, even as the pandemic rages on. U.S. regulations and low staffing levels lead to long lineups and frustration at airports.

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As COVID-19 took hold in March, 2020, governments in Canada and around the world closed borders and imposed quarantines on travellers. WestJet grounded 80 percent of its fleet of 180 aircraft and laid off nearly two-thirds of its 14,000 flight attendants, pilots and other staff.

The shutdown stretched into the first half of 2021, when WestJet was operating at just 15 percent of pre-COVID capacity.

Growth in seat sales and the resumption of many routes, driven by higher vaccination rates and easier travel restrictions, began in the third quarter. Today, WestJet is operating at about 70-percent capacity, and has connected dozens of destinations, including Mexico, Hawaii and Puerto Rico.

WestJet’s head of finance since 2015 and Mr Taylor, who has been in the CEO’s office to replace Ed Sims, said WestJet has seven thousand employees on the job, out of the 9,000 the airline expects to do by the end of the year. Mr Sims retired after four years to return to his native New Zealand.

Onex Corp. WestJet, which is owned by WestJet, is looking for a permanent CEO, and Mr. Taylor said he plans to return to his financial role when a new boss arrives.

Prior to moving to WestJet, Mr. Taylor had a 20-year career in finance in Canada and the United States at Canadian Tire Corp, Holt Renfrew, Home Depot and PepsiCo. The father of two grown children was born in Winnipeg and moved to Toronto at the age of 9. He is a Chartered Accountant who studied at the University of Toronto and the University of Western Ontario, where he did his MBA.

Like his counterpart in Air Canada, he is monolingual. Air Canada CEO Michael Rousseau ignited a controversy this month when he admitted he can’t speak French despite living in Montreal for 14 years.

“I don’t speak French, at least, not very well … as a Canadian I’m sorry for a long time,” said Mr. Taylor.

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The pandemic has reshaped the airline business, leaving it deeply at a loss, with layers of regulations and costs associated with quick screening and handling of passengers in confined spaces while adhering to public-health regulations. Travelers will continue to see more touchless check-in and screening, and mask requirements will remain in place for a long time, he predicted.

Working in an airline has been tough, Mr. Taylor Said, partly because travelers who are returning to the skies are frustrated by the shifting maze of testing, vaccine and quarantine requirements, and long lines at security and boarding gates. Some passengers are also out of flight practice, and have forgotten the usual rules, such as those about carry-on bags and liquids, he said.

“There is tremendous pressure on our organization to deliver the service we aspire to offer our guests. And that is to differentiate ourselves by being more caring and friendly. And yet we have guests who are disappointed. They Haven’t traveled for a while. They sometimes get too emotional. And so they get angry very quickly.”

This has created a situation of conflict between the employees and the passengers.

Still, WestJet said it has flown millions of customers this year, and banned just 188 for not complying with mask-wearing rules. “We are trying at every turn to ensure that we make the travel experience easier, not more difficult for them, but uncontrolled [passengers] “There are actually very, very small percentages,” said WestJet spokeswoman Morgan Bell.

Mr Taylor said domestic seat sales would reach pre-COVID levels by the summer, followed by declines in Latin America and the Caribbean. “People are just saying, ‘I’m done. I have to visit my friends. I have to take that leave. I have to visit my family.’ Whatever recovery we are seeing, be it visiting friends and relatives or leisure travel.”

Cross-border and transatlantic routes are backward, he said, mainly because of the diverse and persistent pandemic travel restrictions. He added that business travel is another segment that rebounds at a slow pace.

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