For years, WestJet Airlines Ltd. proudly proclaimed that all of its passengers were equal.
Now, some are just a little more equal than others, as WestJet looks to court business travellers with the kind of perks – including preferential seating for corporate customers – that it used to deliberately shun.
The Calgary-based carrier is introducing "premium economy" seats with more legroom in a bid to lure business passengers, the latest step in its evolution from a regional operation that revelled in its folksy charm to one that is increasingly coming to resemble arch rival Air Canada.
In recent years, WestJet has added a frequent flier program and a loyalty credit card, and joined with other airlines to form partnerships, bridging the gap between what had been a no-frills carrier and Air Canada.
But WestJet still has freewheeling elements that linger from its birth in 1996, notably a boarding process where staff let most passengers line up at random. After giving priority to special needs customers, seniors and adults with young children, WestJet trusts the remaining travellers to decide on their own when to hand over their ticket at the gate.
On Wednesday, WestJet moved to provide roomier seats in the first three rows and the exit row than in the rest of plane.
Customers who pay extra for the premium seats will receive priority boarding, complimentary in-flight amenities and greater flexibility to make changes to their itinerary for free. Cabins on 99 Boeing 737s will be reconfigured between August and December. "Four rows of extra legroom seating will be installed across the entire 737 fleet, providing 36 inches of legroom for guests to stretch out or work comfortably," WestJet CEO Gregg Saretsky said in a conference call.
With three seats on each side of the narrow-body Boeing jets, having four rows set aside for premium economy will mean 24 spaces for customers willing to pay extra. Calgary-based WestJet has yet to determine how much more it will charge, but emphasizes that its new offering will priced sharply lower than Air Canada's business-class fares.
WestJet's legroom, or "seat pitch" in industry jargon, currently amounts to an average of 32 inches on its Boeing 737-600s and 737-700s, and 34 inches on its newer Boeing 737-800s.
The airline will shrink the space in the remaining rows, with some passengers losing one inch of legroom on the older Boeing aircraft or two to three inches on the Boeing 737-800s. Still, WestJet argues that its new seat configuration in row four and farther back will be in line with North American rivals.
WestJet had considered switching to an outright two-class cabin, but rejected the idea of having compartments separated. "We're not closing a curtain, so that you can't see what goes on up front," WestJet spokesman Richard Bartrem said in an interview.
He said WestJet will increase the total number of seats on its Boeing 737-800s to 174 from 166, but the seat count will stay at 119 on the 737-600s and 136 on the 737-700s.
The move to a two-tier seating system came as the company boosted its quarterly dividend to 8 cents a share from six cents, with the new rate taking effect for shareholders of record Sept. 12.
Mr. Saretsky said the higher dividend underscores management's confidence in WestJet's business model, which includes plans to launch a regional airline in the second half of 2013.
WestJet said Wednesday that it posted a second-quarter profit of $42.5-million, up from $25.6-million in the same period last year. Share profit climbed to 31 cents from 18 cents in the same period of 2011.