FTE APEX Virtual Expo 2021: United and WestJet CEOs on relaunching global air transport

Day 2 of FTE APEX Virtual Expo 2021 (26 May 2021) included ‘Fireside Chats’ with Scott Kirby, CEO United Airlines, and Ed Sims, President & Chief Executive Officer, WestJet, conducted by Shashank Nigam, Founder & CEO, SimpliFlying. They shared their perspectives on relaunching global air transport.

United CEO: “This is not your old United Airlines – we’re building something completely different”

United Airlines has been proactive in its response to the COVID-19 pandemic, introducing full refunds for customers and fully flexible change policies, as well as encouraging all staff to get vaccinated. It also became the first US major to be certified at the “hospital-grade” Diamond level of the APEX Health Safety powered by SimpliFlying programme, which recognises preparedness to deal with passenger-related health and hygiene challenges presented by COVID-19.
“This is not your old United Airlines – nothing like it. We’re building something completely different to what people are used to experiencing, particularly at a network airline,” said Scott Kirby, CEO United Airlines. “My job is firstly to make our employees proud and secondly make our customers and the public like us. The work we’re doing on sustainability and diversity are examples of things I hope will make our employees and customers proud of the United brand.”
He commented that, as we emerge from the pandemic, the passenger experience will combine health safety with convenience, value and comfort.
Kirby added that sustainability is a personal passion and the defining issue of our generation. “United made a commitment to be 100% green – carbon neutral by 2050 – and that means we’re not going to use offsets. We’re going to get there through two big areas – sustainable aviation fuels and carbon sequestration.”

WestJet CEO: “We’re a proud hybrid carrier and I feel our market niche will be one of the first to recover”

Ed Sims, President & Chief Executive Officer, WestJet, began by saying that relationships, partnerships and continuity are the keys to navigating a situation like the COVID-19 pandemic.
He commented on how WestJet has adapted. “Key areas of our strategy include the ability to reconfigure more than 50 narrow-body 737s while they were on the ground not flying anywhere, the commitment to go ahead with the forward order on four of our 10 787s so that we didn’t suddenly change track, and simply opening the premium lounge at Calgary Airport – all of those are indicative of an organisation that’s not deviating from our original strategy. We’re a proud hybrid carrier and I feel like our market niche is going to be one of the first to recover, provided that we stick with our original strategic intentions.”
WestJet identified three years ago that it was severely under-indexed at the premium end of the marketplace. “Our natural share of the Canadian domestic travel market is around a third, but we were only carrying around 20% of the higher end,” Sims explained. “So, we’ve been allocating our capital to programmes that help us close that gap.”
The airline grounded 130 of its fleet in anticipation of the Canadian Government closing the border with the US. It has also adjusted its refund policy to offer full refunds to those whose flights have been cancelled due to COVID-19. “It’s a substantial investment, but an opportunity for us to say that we’ll take a different stance on refunds – if we’ve cancelled your itinerary, we feel that sense of obligation,” said Sims. “It’s a sensible investment in future traffic and future trust.”
Looking forward, he believes testing is going to be critical for the next six months, with health safety protocols to remain in place. “Clearly, vaccines are going to be the instrument by which we put COVID in the rear-view mirror,” he added. “Where I want to get to over three to five years is being able to assess what this new landscape looks like, and how an organisation with a robust balance sheet like WestJet can look around that landscape and see what opportunities it presents.”

Airlines and airports can register for a free access-all-areas pass, including the virtual exhibition hall, conference sessions, and networking areas.

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