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May 13, 2019

From first flight to a $3.5B deal: A look at WestJet’s 23-year history

How WestJet's culture could change after Onex's $5B deal

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Canada’s airlines sector received a surprise jolt Monday morning, after WestJet Airlines Ltd. announced it has agreed to be sold to private equity firm Onex Corp. for $3.5 billion, excluding debt.

The country’s second-largest carrier first took off in 1996, and since then has always operated in Air Canada’s shadow. Here’s a look at some of WestJet’s defining moments in its 23-year history.

February 1996 – WestJet takes flight

In early 1996, the very first WestJet flight took off. The company was founded by businessmen Clive Beddoe and David Neeleman among other co-founders, with the goal of creating a cheaper airline alternative to Air Canada. With its initial fleet of three Boeing 737s, the carrier covered Western Canada’s biggest cities, hence the name.

July 1999 – WestJet goes public

Three years after its first flight, WestJet made its initial public offering as the airline sought to ramp up its expansion. Shares went on sale at $10. By late 1999, WestJet serviced 11 airports, but nothing east of Thunder Bay, Ont.

2000 – Canadian expansion

WestJet began expanding to Eastern Canada. The carrier made John C. Munro Airport in Hamilton, Ont. its hub for Eastern Canada. In 2002 WestJet finally added Toronto as a destination.

Onex and airlines: How WestJet's new owner has invested in the sector

Its acquisition of WestJet is only the latest investment Onex has made in the airline industry. BNN Bloomberg's Paul Bagnell takes a look back at the private-equity firm's involvement in the sector.

2001 – Fleet expansion

WestJet exclusively operated a fleet of Boeing 737-200s until the turn of the millennium. It was at this time the company began to introduce the so-called next-generation of 737s, the 600s and 700s. By 2005 the company’s inaugural fleet was retired, and eventually sold. The next-generation Boeings are still in service, but in recent years WestJet has added the 737 Max 8 and the 787 Dreamliner to its fleet.

2004 – International expansion

In 2004 WestJet’s fleet crossed Canadian borders for the first time, as the carrier added half a dozen U.S. destinations to its roster. The company added a handful of U.S. stops every subsequent year. WestJet’s first trip outside of the U.S. and Canada was to Nassau, Bahamas in 2006.

September 2006 – Founder steps down

WestJet’s principal founder Clive Beddoe stepped down as CEO and was succeeded by Sean Durfy. Durfy then resigned in 2010 citing personal reasons. He was later replaced by airline executive Gregg Saretsky.

2013 – Overseas expansion

After gradually adding more North American destinations, WestJet announced its first trip to Europe in 2013, a seasonal service from St. John’s, Newfoundland to Dublin. In 2015 the carrier added regular service to London’s Gatwick Airport.

April 2017 – Low-cost plans

WestJet announced plans to launch an ultra-low-cost carrier, to take on emerging rivals like Flair Airlines. The airline, named Swoop, launched in the summer of 2018.

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    May 2017 – WestJet pilots join union

    The carrier’s pilots voted in favour of joining the Air Line Pilots Association in May 2017, marking a major shift in culture. WestJet had long opposed unionization and had seen several union votes fail previously over the years.

    March 2018 – Saretsky announces retirement

    Saretsky unexpectedly announces he will retire amid a number of labour disputes and just months before Swoop’s scheduled launch. He is replaced by Ed Sims, WestJet’s executive vice-president of commercial.

    May 2018 – WestJet faces strike threat

    Last spring WestJet faced strike action by its pilots. The key issue for pilots centered around who would fly Swoop flights. WestJet and the ALPA agreed to a settlement process a few weeks later.

    May 2019 – WestJet agrees to Onex takeover

    WestJet announced it will be bought by Toronto-based private equity firm Onex Corp. in a $5-billion deal, including debt, which will take the airline private.