Westjet celebrates 20 years in the air with YLW ceremony

Kelowna was one of five original destinations for the airline when it started with just three planes in 1996.

Westjet Kelowna station manager Ryan Schwindt (left) and YLW director Sam Samaddar celebrated the airline's 20th anniversary Monday at the airport. Kelowna was one of the original five airports the airline flew into

Westjet Airlines celebrated it’s 20th birthday Monday at one of the original airports where it’s business originally took off – Kelowna International Airport.

Back in 1996, with just three planes, a limited number of flights in and out of Kelowna, Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary and Winnipeg and plan to become a successful economy airline, Westjet entered the market and immediately found success.

According to airport director Sam Samaddar, the little airline that could—and did—went from one flight per day in and out of Kelowna when it started in February 1996 and by August of that year it had increased its daily flight schedule here to five flights. Airport officials said 32 of the 66 flights per day at YLW are Westjet flights.

Samaddar said when Westjet started it had five per cent of the market share at YLW. Today it has 68 per cent.

With the Coquihalla Highway just opened and the cost of flying between Kelowna and Vancouver around $600 return prior to Westjet’s arrival, it soon claimed much of the “rubber tire” traffic heading to the Coast by offering airfares of around $180 return, said Samaddar.

And as the airline grew, so too did the airport — in large measure, according to Samaddar, as a result of Westjet’s success.

“When Westjet started, the airport, as a business, was struggling,” he said.

YLW, with far fewer destinations then than it now serves, had about 350,000 passengers moving through its small terminal each year in the mid-1990s.

It now handles more than 1.6 million passengers per year and is the 11th busiest airport in the country.

Meanwhile, the airline also grown. From its humble beginnings with just three aircraft and total of 220 employees across its network, it now has 140 aircraft, 13,000 employees and flies to 10 different locations from Kelowna alone.

One of the original “Westjetters,” as the company calls its employees, aircraft mechanic Geoff Seddon was on hand at the airport Monday, along with the two other original employees stationed here who still work for the company, Westjet’s airport administrator Carmen Prive and guest service agent Carol McRae.

Seddon, who joined the airline after 10 years working for the now defunct Canadian Airlines, said he remembers when he was the only aircraft mechanic the airline had here.

“I was working all the time. I never had a day off,” he said with a smile.

A lot has changed over the years for Westjet, including the planes it flies and the technology used to keep them in the air, he said.

But what hasn’t changed is the approach the airline uses with its “guests” (a term it coined instead of passengers).

Stewards and stewardesses regularly use humour when making announcements onboard, the company prides itself as being a big community supporter, involved in local charities and community organizations. For many, flying with Westjet is, to borrow the catchphrase of a U.S. airline, like flying the friendly skies.

“We see Westjet as being a partner with the community and the airport,” said the airline’s station manager in Kelowna Ryan Schwindt. “It’s a collaborative approach.”