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WestJet announces UltraBasic fare with no carry-ons, no seat choice and no points

WestJet announced that it has introduced an ultra low-cost fare — and if you like carry-ons, seat choice and earning points, there's a catch.  (Daniel Thomas/CBC - image credit)
WestJet announced that it has introduced an ultra low-cost fare — and if you like carry-ons, seat choice and earning points, there's a catch. (Daniel Thomas/CBC - image credit)

WestJet announced that it has introduced an ultra low-cost fare — and if you like carry-ons, seat choice and earning points, there's a catch.

The UltraBasic fare will replace the airline's basic fare option, and it comes with "some restrictions," according to an email that was sent to WestJet members.

Carry-on bags aren't permitted unless a passenger is on a transatlantic or transpacific flight, or bought the airline's extended comfort option, the email said.

Passengers can check a bag in advance for an additional fee and bring a personal item that fits under the seat in front of them. If you arrive to the gate with a carry-on bag, you'll be hit with both the checked bag fee and an additional service fee.

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Going UltraBasic also means you won't earn WestJet points for that flight through the airline's rewards program.

You'll also be assigned seats (including middle seats) at the back of the plane, with no guarantee that you can sit with travel companions. You have the option of choosing your seats if you pay a fee.

Passengers who pay the UltraBasic fare will be the last to board the plane, and there are no changes, cancellations or refunds for your flight.

The announcement from WestJet to its passengers said the changes will help speed up boarding, optimize cabin space and improve the travel experience.

"UltraBasic has been designed to both expedite the boarding process and provide our most competitive pricing," a WestJet spokesperson told CBC News in an email.

'A sign of the times,' says frequent flier

The change is "a sign of the times," said Graeme Bligh, a frequent flier from Winnipeg who runs a travel website called The Canadian Jetsetter.

"I can't say I'm too surprised to see it. It's definitely following the trend of going more the way of a European low-cost carrier where you're charged for everything," he said.

"What remains to be seen is if the prices actually get lower if they are more competitive."

Passengers walk past Air Canada and WestJet planes at Calgary International Airport in Calgary, Alta., Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2022.
Passengers walk past Air Canada and WestJet planes at Calgary International Airport in Calgary, Alta., Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2022.

Passengers walk past planes at Calgary International Airport in 2022. Porter Airlines, Air Canada and WestJet began charging for checked bags in 2014, which has 'had the downstream of the effect of now everyone brings a carry-on bag,' said frequent flier Graeme Bligh. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

On the other hand, Bligh said, the new fare addresses a problem that most air carriers have: a lack of overhead baggage space.

Porter Airlines, Air Canada and WestJet began charging for checked bags in 2014, which has "had the downstream of the effect of now everyone brings a carry-on bag," he said.

Restricting who can bring a carry-on could improve boarding times and create overhead space, Bligh said.

It's a "very deliberate business strategy" on WestJet's part, said John Lawford, executive director and general counsel of the Public Interest Advocacy Centre in Ottawa.

He said it allows the airline to operate as if it were a low-cost carrier, a regular carrier and a premium carrier in one.

"WestJet is segmenting the aircraft so that they've got different experiences for different classes," Lawford told CBC News.

"But in doing so, they're in effect opening up the consumer's mind to the thought that there are now three classes on every average flight, sort of. First class, maybe extended economy, economy and then this lower class."

As for whether other airlines could follow suit, "that'll I think depend on consumer reaction and how much real competition we have in the market," he said.