The skies between Canada and Ireland will be more crowded than usual this summer as WestJet Airlines Ltd. undertakes a test of how it would fly over the Atlantic to Europe.
WestJet's first transatlantic offerings will begin in June with seasonal, non-stop flights between St. John's and Dublin, and direct flights from Toronto to Dublin that will stop in St. John's for refuelling.
While there is obvious tourism business and growing business links between Canada and Ireland, the flights are also a chance for WestJet to assess potential European operations, company spokesman Robert Palmer said Friday.
"This gives us an opportunity to get experience and give us a better understanding of the European market without overextending ourselves," Mr. Palmer said.
The new service doesn't mean, he hastened to add, that Calgary-based WestJet is preparing to launch full-scale European service.
WestJet will use its existing Boeing 737-700 planes, which seat 136 passengers. The airplanes will need some minor technical changes, Mr. Palmer said.
But it does increase the competition – at least for next summer – on Canada-to-Ireland routes.
Air Canada's Rouge discount airline recently announced it will offer year-round service to Ireland, which is a change from its previous seasonal offerings.
Dublin-based Aer Lingus will begin Toronto to Dublin service in April, flying Boeing 757 aircraft daily during the peak summer season. That plane can seat as many as 289 passengers.
In addition to the St. John's-Dublin and Toronto-St. John's-Dublin flights, WestJet will also begin daily non-stop flights between Ottawa and St. John's that will allow passengers to connect to Dublin.
The St. John's-Dublin flight is about four hours and 15 minutes, Mr. Palmer said, which is less time in the air than some of its flights from Canadian destinations to the Caribbean.
WestJet has other things to think about before making a full-scale assault on Air Canada and its European business, industry analyst Walter Spracklin said in a note to clients Friday.
"While management is clear that they are studying the potential for international expansion, their focus in the intermediate term is with its new regional service offering and fleet expansion incorporating the 76-seat Q400 turboprop," Mr. Spracklin wrote.
"While we believe WestJet is essentially establishing a European beachhead and working on increasing brand recognition, we don't see WestJet bringing on a new wide-body aircraft type into its fleet with the next three to five years," he wrote.
Air Canada recently announced a major expansion of its European offerings, including year-round service to Milan, Italy from Toronto and the use of new wide-body aircraft on flights to London and Frankfurt from Calgary and from Montreal to Geneva and Brussels.
WestJet started with single-aisle 737 planes, and those are still the only jets in its fleet. It has added Q400 turboprop airplanes for domestic flights, but full-blown competition with Air Canada on international routes would require the addition of wide-bodied aircraft.