Say so long to magenta. After this summer season, WestJet’s supposed low-cost operator Swoop will be shut down thanks to the recently-ratified contract between WestJet and its pilots. I’d like to do a heartfelt obituary, but I don’t think anybody really cares that the airline is going away after five years flying.
Swoop was part of WestJet’s plan to have one airline subsidiary for every route the airline flies. Ok, maybe that’s a slight exaggeration. But Swoop was created as a way to compete with the expected onslaught of new generation ultra low cost carriers (ULCCs) that have moved on Canada in the last few years… and Air Canada Rouge.
When it started in 2018, Swoop focused on domestic flying within Canada from secondary airports like Hamilton outside Toronto and Abbotsford outside Vancouver. Why? It’s not because WestJet saw some amazing opportunity there. It’s just that these are where the ULCCs were building their businesses, and WestJet felt it needed to be there too… just not as WestJet.
By the fall of 2018 when the weather turned colder, the airline had followed the time-honored tradition of moving its airplanes to shuffle pasty-white Canadians down to the sun. Initial routes were from Abbotsford to Las Vegas and Edmonton to Las Vegas and Phoenix/Mesa as well as Hamilton to Fort Lauderdale, Las Vegas, Orlando, and Tampa.
These were all prime sun routes with the exception of Phoenix’s alternate airport in Mesa. Why did Swoop go there instead of Sky Harbor? Phoenix/Mesa is where Flair was flying, of course.
By 2019 it had moved into the burgeoning metropolises of Kelowna and London (Ontario). At the end of that year, it expanded beyond the US and Canada into México and Jamaica, looking like so many other airlines that have tried to make a living on those sun routes over the years.
The pandemic — and the severe restrictions by the Canadian government — obviously did Swoop no favors, and it did cause the airline to rethink its plans. In October 2020, Swoop moved into Toronto/Pearson, shifting away from its secondary airport plan to now include primary airports as well. The summer of 2022 saw the airline’s broadest schedule by far as it expanded to 16 airplanes with a mix of 737-800s and 737 MAX 8s.
That summer saw Edmonton as the airline’s largest station followed by Toronto and then Abbotsford. It had expanded into a variety of new Canadian markets like Comox, Deer Lake, Moncton, Ottawa, Regina, Saskatoon, St John, St Johns (which is actually a different place), and other cities that may or not may actually exist.
Though a clear strategy seems far from apparent, it looks like the idea was to take routes from WestJet that didn’t work under the WestJet cost structure while also trying to create a defensive position against the likes of Flair and Lynx in the ULCC world.
It’s not clear that any of these efforts were particularly successful.
The airline peaked at 16 737s, but it started to fly less and less after that 2022 peak. The summer of 2023 saw block hours drop by more than 11 percent with a slew of cities being abandoned including Comox, Ottawa, Regina, Saskatoon, and St John.
For this summer, Edmonton has been scaled back dramatically, now becoming the airline’s fourth largest station behind Hamilton, Toronto, and Abbotsford. Service will now dwindle until the end of the IATA summer season on October 28 when it will cease to exist entirely.
The catalyst for this change of heart was the recently-ratified contract between WestJet and its pilots. It’s a common ask at airlines where there are airlines-within-an-airline to kill that operation since it is almost always predicated on lower labor costs. It’s a very popular option in Canada thanks to Air Canada Rouge’s apparent success, but WestJet is an airline that needs to have low costs all around. It should never have tried to be all things to all people, and now it can take one step back toward focusing on the airline’s bread-and-butter.
This is WestJet, however, so there won’t be an entire focus on simplicity. It was just last month when WestJet finalized its purchase of Sunwing, an airline that did the southbound sun flying that Swoop occasionally pursued. Sunwing will likely continue doing what it does from Montréal and Toronto, making Swoop even less important in the scheme of things.
The big losers are likely to be Abbotsford and Hamilton since those are not part of Sunwing’s plan and probably won’t fill well into WestJet’s current Alberta focus. But really, those are markets where WestJet really shouldn’t have been trying to compete anyway. It needs to focus. Hopefully this change will help it do just that.