In what turned out to be a well-known secret, WestJet officially announced that it’s regional carrier, Encore, would be setting up shop in Fort St. John starting in June.
“I think it’s great for the region,” said Mayor Mike Bernier.
“It’ll be an impact on the Peace Region – hopefully positive for everyone – and doesn’t negatively affect the Dawson Creek Airport.”
Two simultaneous announcements were made, one in Centennial Park where WestJet staff milled about the Family Day crowd, handing out paraphernalia, and another out at the North Peace Regional Airport, where politicians and executives made official statements and welcomed to new airline to the Peace.
“It’s an unbelievable day,” said Lori Ackerman, mayor of Fort St. John. “This is so great on so many different fronts.”
The decision to bring Encore to Fort St. John, as well as Nanaimo, just made sense to WestJet executive vice-president, Ferio Pugliese.
“The resource basin you have here, the heavy industry that’s invested in here, the traffic that’s coming through this whole area we believe is a lucrative enough market that we can stimulate and draw traffic,” he said.
“There’s a lot of other markets out there that we could serve – and we will – but these ones made complete sense because of the … market and to a large degree we feel it’s underserved. There’s a lack of choice for people here.”
While Dawson Creek was also in consideration by WestJet, it was no surprise when the announcement was made in favour of the North Peace Airport.
“When I met with the people from WestJet, they explained that Fort St. John would probably be a better place because they’re further away from Grande Prairie,” said Mike Bernier, mayor of Dawson Creek.
“Some of the discussion we’ve had here is to keep people on the B.C. side of the border instead of having to go to Grande Prairie and places … Hopefully it’ll create a positive spinoff for the fares as well, maybe more competitive fares, because that’s the number one thing we hear from our region – the cost to get out of here.”
The cost of flying in and out of Fort St. John has been a point of contention for residents and businesses in the Peace for a long time.
“In the past, a lot of people, workers coming here that end up leaving because they can’t get their relatives here economically to visit them, and they can’t go either, so that’s put a bit of a kibosh on immigrants coming here and staying and setting up roots, they’re always looking for that day when they can go,” said Art Jarvis, executive director of Energy Services BC.
“We definitely need some competition to spur on some price changes and whatnot,” said Amada Hadland.
Ackerman echoed those sentiments.
“I know there are organizations in this community that have tried to recruit professionals here, they take one look at what it’s going to cost to get home to visit their family and they say ‘No, we’re not going to do that,’ ” she said. “So this changes all of that, and there’s just so much that comes together.”
Jarivs noted that the head offices for many of the businesses in Fort St. John are located in Calgary, so having a direct flight between the two will be a great benefit to industry.
“They’ll be able to come right out to the job site and speak to the people doing the work – huge connection there – and you wouldn’t have been able to do that in the past,” he said, adding that with the cost of flying employees being considerably lower with WestJet, companies will save money, which would then be passed on to the consumer.
Many Fort St. John residents have family that do not reside within driving distance, which makes air travel the only real option.
“My daughter’s living up here. I live in Salmon Arm and I’m very happy to see it coming in. It’ll going to be nice to see the pricing, I fly WestJet a lot and I enjoy them, so I’m glad to see them here,” said Gerald Bergstrom, who was taking part in the activities in Centennial Park on Family Day.
“We have a lot of family in Vancouver, so we’re really looking forward to it,” said Christine Peterson. “It increases competition so there’s more opportunity for us to get better rates as well. So hopefully we can fly more!”
WestJet Encore will start flying out of Fort St. John in June, with service to Calgary and Vancouver. The fleet will start with two Bombardier Q400 NextGen aircraft, with a firm order for 20 more of these planes and the option to bring in 25 more, which would put the potential fleet size to 45, according to Pugliese.
He noted that, depending on the number of people that use the carrier, the number of flights could expand, as well as the number of destinations.
Ackerman added: “This is a real indication that Fort St. John is growing, that there’s stable and steady growth, and that we’re open for business and ready for investment.”