Airfares, then and now – 1996 to 2016

As we celebrate our first 20 years, we can’t help but look back and reflect on what’s happened in the Canadian airline industry since we first took to the skies in 1996. While that’s a blog post for another time, we thought it would be interesting to take a closer look at one of the common themes we’ve heard from our guests for as long as we can remember: airfares.

To appreciate how airfares have changed over the last 20 years, we first need to set a baseline so that we can make as accurate a comparison as possible. Of course, we are simplifying a very complex subject because we want to keep this blog post relatively short.

There are essentially two mandatory components of your total flight ticket cost and one optional component. The mandatory parts are ones that you (the traveller) have no control over and include the base fare or other transportation charges and any airport authority or government-imposed taxes or fees. The airfare makes up the majority of WestJet’s revenue each year. We pass on any money collected at the time of booking for taxes or fees to the appropriate third party. These extra taxes and fees may include GST, PST or HST as well as Airport Improvement Fees (AIF), the Air Travellers Security Charge (ATSC), and any other air-travel related fees charged by governments in the countries to which we fly.

The optional component of one’s total cost to travel depends on the needs of the individual traveller. This includes fees for inflight meals, entertainment, upgrades, baggage, etc. Since these fees are not a mandatory part of the ticket, we’ve excluded them to help provide as clean a comparison as possible from 1996 to 2016. We’ve always had overweight and excess baggage fees, but during our first years of operation, our only forms of inflight entertainment were toilet paper races and beautiful sunsets over the Rockies, and the only form of priority boarding was if you happened to be wearing teal socks.
WestJet 737-200
It’s important to also note that government regulations changed a few years ago regarding how we advertise ticket prices. When we started flying in 1996 (and all the way up to 2012), it was standard business practice to advertise a $79 base fare with a note that “taxes, fees and charges are extra”. The taxes, fees and charges were mostly dependent on the departure airport, connecting airport(s) and final destination, and a good ballpark was usually to add around $50 each direction for a domestic flight.

As of 2012, we now advertise tickets with all-in pricing, so the price you see includes all mandatory taxes, fees and charges. If you look at the flight cost summary on our website during the booking process, you’ll still see a breakdown of all the costs, including how much is for the base fare, as well as the totals for taxes, fees and charges. If the initial response we observed on social media was any indication, the change to all-in pricing in early 2012 certainly had an impact on the public’s perception of the total cost to travel, even if dollar amounts for base fares, taxes, fees and charges remained the same from one month to the next.

So, if we’re looking at base fares, we can easily put the 1996 base fares next to the 2016 base fares and see what’s cheaper, right? Not quite. We still have to take inflation into account to create a true comparison. Thanks to the Bank of Canada’s inflation calculator, we know that there are there has been a 44.09 per cent change in the relative cost of a “fixed basket of goods and services” over the last 20 years. Or, more simply, something that cost $100 in 1996 dollars would be the equivalent of $144.09 in 2016 dollars.

So with that in mind, here are some of the base fares that we launched with in 1996, adjusted for inflation to 2016 dollars, next to the current equivalent fares for the same routes. This is the closest way we can provide an apples-to-apples comparison of our lowest fares.

OriginDestinationLowest base fare in 19961996 base fare adjusted to 2016 dollarsLowest base fare in 2016Difference from 1996 to 2016  

Note: you’ll only see routes here from the five Western Canadian cities that we launched with in 1996.

Though we’ve heard it many times in the past, and are certain that we’ll hear it more in the future, we’re confident that we’re still able to offer very similar fares as we did when we initially launched in 1996. In some cases, we’ve been able to lower the inflation-adjusted fares by as much as 11.5 per cent, as is the case with Edmonton-Victoria.
Airfares from 1996 to 2016
We don’t like to toot our own horn too much but we are proud to have been able to maintain these low fares while changing the air travel experience for the better over 20 years. Our long-time guests will remember the early days with our old 737-200 series aircraft, which had little seat pitch, no food options and no inflight entertainment. They’ll also remember queuing up in one giant line at check-in, long before web, mobile or app check in was even a thing. There was no rewards program, no credit card and no extra perks other than a friendly smile and warm welcome on board.
WestJet Boeing 737-800
By comparison, the majority of our fleet is now comprised of Boeing 737NGs as well as Bombardier Q400 NextGen aircraft. We have WestJet Connect (our new inflight entertainment and wireless connectivity system) on board a growing number of our planes so you can share your feedback with us on social media or post an awesome Instagram pic from 41,000 feet. You can also stream your favourite movie to your personal device via the WestJet app. We have an award-winning credit card, as well as a rewards program that is simple and allows our guests to earn and redeem easily without blackouts. We also fly to more than 100 destinations in Canada, the U.S., Mexico, the Caribbean, Central America and Europe, and can connect you with airline partners that reach all corners of the globe. Backing all of this is nearly 12,000 WestJetters who truly care about making your trip a good one.

Sure, over the last 20 years, we’ve changed a fair bit… but so have you, and we feel like we’ve changed for the better. So thanks for making our first 20 years memorable. We look forward to welcoming you on board for the next 20 years and beyond!