WestJet sees big lift from 'premium economy' seats

TORONTO Wed Nov 21, 2012 5:39am EST

President and CEO of Westjet Gregg Saretsky addresses shareholders during the company's annual general meeting in Calgary, Alberta, in this May 1, 2012, file photo. REUTERS/Todd Korol/Files

President and CEO of Westjet Gregg Saretsky addresses shareholders during the company's annual general meeting in Calgary, Alberta, in this May 1, 2012, file photo.

Credit: Reuters/Todd Korol/Files

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TORONTO (Reuters) - WestJet Airlines Ltd expects a multi-million dollar lift from its new "premium economy" seating, and is planning a new in-flight entertainment system that will reduce costs, the chief executive of Canada's second-largest airline said on Tuesday.

The new screenless entertainment system, to be tested next year, would let travellers hook up their own device to access Internet content along with live and taped television, movies and music, CEO Gregg Saretsky said at a Scotiabank transportation conference.

"If it all works, we can remove the seat back (screens), you bring your own tablet or iPad or computer or smartphone and we will beam the content to your device," he said in a webcast presentation.

The shift would remove about 1,200 pounds from each aircraft and cut fuel costs, he said.

WestJet has not yet determined if it will charge for content offered through travellers' own devices, and whether it will use ground towers or satellites to support the entertainment system.

With plans to introduce premium economy seating next year, Calgary, Alberta-based WestJet is shifting from its roots as a low-cost rival to bigger Air Canada ACb.TO.

Saretsky would not forecast how much additional revenue the seating will produce, but said it could be similar to gains at U.S. carrier JetBlue Airway (JBLU.O).

"If you look at the premium economy model in the United States, specifically JetBlue ... they talk about a $150 million bump. That gives you some sense of the size of the opportunity we see," Saretsky said.

WestJet said this summer that it will offer 24 premium economy seats on each of its 100 planes early next year, a service that will include priority boarding and refundable tickets. (Reporting by Susan Taylor; Editing by Janet Guttsman and Tim Dobbyn)