WestJet Airlines announces deal to buy Sunwing

Click to play video: 'WestJet plans to buy Sunwing Airlines' WestJet plans to buy Sunwing Airlines
WATCH: WestJet plans to buy Sunwing Airlines – Mar 2, 2022

The WestJet Group has announced a deal to buy Sunwing Airlines and Sunwing Vacations, bolstering its presence in the holiday tour market as competition among Canadian carriers heats up.

Financial terms of the agreement, which will see Sunwing’s shareholders become equity holders in the WestJet Group, were not disclosed.

Read more: Travel bookings up as Albertans take advantage of loosening border measures

Unveiled Wednesday, the deal brings together two highly complementary businesses, “WestJet being a little bit more upmarket and Sunwing being a bit more mass market,” WestJet CEO Alexis von Hoensbroech said in an interview.

Under the agreement, WestJet will create a new tour operator unit headed by Sunwing CEO Stephen Hunter that includes Sunwing Vacations and WestJet Vacations as separate brands.

Story continues below advertisement

WestJet will also expand to include Sunwing Airlines, adding capacity as it turns seasonally operated aircraft into year-round jets. Currently, Sunwing meets seasonal demand by leasing the bulk of its fleet through the winter.

Both airlines are privately held. Launched in 2005, Toronto-based Sunwing is controlled by the Hunter family — Germany’s TUI Group owns the other 49 per cent of the airline — and Calgary-based WestJet was purchased by Onex Corp. for $3.5 billion in 2019.

The acquisition would increase WestJet’s flight footprint to sun destinations and resorts after what has been a tough two years for the airline and travel industries.

The federal government last month lifted its advisory against international travel and both airlines are hiring. WestJet employs 8,490 workers — down from roughly 14,000 in 2019 — and 180 planes.

Sunwing has fewer than 2,500 on staff and operates 40 aircraft in winter and 10 in summer. It owns 18 of those planes, leasing out eight to European carriers in the warmer months.

Both CEOs said no layoffs would result from the takeover.

“There will be less aircraft from Europe, which means more aircraft from Canada being staffed with Canadian crews. So this will eventually mean more jobs,” Hoensbroech said.

“We feel strong enough, even more so together, to recover well out of this pandemic and to be more competitive, specifically in a low-cost market,” said the WestJet CEO, who stepped into the role two weeks ago.

Story continues below advertisement

“I’m more the messenger than the architect of the transaction.”

Click to play video: 'Travel Best Bets: WestJet feeling the impact of Omicron' Travel Best Bets: WestJet feeling the impact of Omicron
Travel Best Bets: WestJet feeling the impact of Omicron – Jan 27, 2022

Sunwing secured access to up to $375 million through a federal loan program for big companies, as well as up to $100 million in borrowed funds from Ottawa to reimburse customers whose flights were cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The debts will be repaid when the WestJet deal closes, it said.

WestJet is one of a handful of airlines that has not issued debt or equity during the pandemic or accepted sector-specific government aid, Hunter noted.

Crystal Hill, vice-president of CUPE 4070, the union that represents WestJet flight attendants, attributed that fact in part to the deep pockets of Onex, which boosted net earnings by 48 per cent to $1.4 billion last year.

“This is positive overall,” she said in a phone interview, observing that the deal suggests faith in a travel market rebound. “Onex has the money. It means stability.”

Story continues below advertisement

Read more: Canada’s border measures are about to loosen. Here’s what you should know

The agreement is expected to close late this year. Transport Canada and the competition commissioner must both review the would-be takeover and report their findings to the transport minister, who has final say.

In April, Air Canada abandoned its attempted acquisition of Transat AT after the European Commission warned the country’s largest airline it would face high regulatory hurdles.

“There are no exclusive routes that we operate on or would operate on as a combined entity. So from our perspective there is there is very, very little concern,” Hunter said.

About 95 per cent of the seats Sunwing sells are part of a vacation package, versus just five per cent for WestJet, he said.

Click to play video: 'Montrealer behind influencer flight to Mexico threatens to sue Sunwing' Montrealer behind influencer flight to Mexico threatens to sue Sunwing
Montrealer behind influencer flight to Mexico threatens to sue Sunwing – Jan 27, 2022

Hunter said he received an acquisition offer early last year from a Montreal-based company he wouldn’t identify. Hunter turned it down “mainly because of culture,” he said, stating he preferred a more growth-driven, “entrepreneurial” attitude.

Story continues below advertisement

Several budget carriers have been beefing up since the summer in preparation for a clash with Air Canada and WestJet — and with each other — particularly for domestic flights and sun destinations.

Flair Airlines has added more than a dozen Boeing 737s to its fleet, as WestJet subsidiary Swoop tacks on routes and Lynx Air — set to make its maiden voyage April 7 — joins the fray as well.

Sponsored content