The Radical and The Reluctant: As WestJet goes for sweeping change, Southwest takes a more cautious approach

A decade ago, in 2008, Southwest and WestJet announced they would soon begin codesharing. The world’s first giant low-cost carrier would be teaming up with its newer, smaller and even more profitable counterpart north of the border. In a few ways, such as its seatback satellite TV, WestJet was more JetBlue than Southwest. But broadly speaking, Southwest and WestJet were a lot more alike than they were different. In addition to an open mind about partnering with other airlines, the two shared all-B737 fleets, reputations for friendly service and a sizeable corporate travel following in their respective countries.

Alas, the deal never amounted to more than mutual website referrals. In 2010, days after WestJet’s now-departed CEO Gregg Saretsky took the reins, the two airlines called it off entirely. (Southwest said WestJet tried to change the terms midstream; WestJet had seemed impatient with Southwest’s inability to execute IT upgrades.) Looking back, that split also served as a symbolic divergence in the paths of the two airlines. WestJet, for one thing, has since added countless partners from around the world, culminating with its pending Delta joint venture. Southwest? It hasn’t added a single codeshare, other than a temporary transitional arrangement with AirTran after acquiring it.

But for Southwest and WestJet, their diverging paths on partnerships only begin to capture the ways in which the two carriers no longer resemble each other. Then again, in some key ways, WestJet also doesn’t resemble itself as it existed a few years ago. Indeed, WestJet today is one of the world’s most strategically aggressive airlines, whereas Southwest is one of the world’s most strategically conservative.

Is one approach better than the other? And if so, which one is prevailing? The answer isn’t obvious in an industry where innovation doesn’t always equate to profits—where doing nothing can be better than doing the wrong thing.

After falling out with Southwest, WestJet soon began codesharing with American and then Delta, two of what today are 16 codeshare partners and 27 other interline partners. Those are big numbers, but they’re not terribly surprising for an airline with a major presence in the key global gateways Toronto, Vancouver and Montréal, where the only other major airline (Air Canada) partners mostly with its…

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