WestJet CEO Ed Sims on running an airline during COVID-19

Stephanie Ricci contributed to this story.

Not many people know the ins and outs of the airline industry as well as Ed Sims. From his work as a controller to leading air traffic control, he has worked everywhere from Air New Zealand to the Virgin Travel Group before becoming CEO of Canadian airline WestJet. In his impending retirement from the airline, Sims looks back on his 35-year career to share what it was like to run an airline during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“There are very few jobs I haven’t really done across the entire aviation spectrum,” said Ed Sims, CEO of WestJet. “One of the huge benefits I had from working in smaller entities was the ability to develop both breadth and technical depth.”

After graduating from Oxford University in England, Sims first entered the airline industry in the 1980s with Air Europe, a now-defunct British airline. He later served as CEO of Airways New Zealand before joining WestJet’s Calgary office in 2017 as Executive Vice-President of Commercial. Less than a year later, he was named CEO.

Sims successfully led WestJet’s expansion from a low-cost carrier to a global network with the introduction of the Boeing 787 for long-haul flights and the launch of two new airlines. He has also led the company through the largest private equity deal in aviation history with Onex’s acquisition of the airline for CA$5 billion in 2019.

“I built a career in aviation because it was a privilege to work in an industry that has such a constructive purpose,” said Sims. “We build bridges all over the world, not walls. But that said, if we don’t come up with effective offset methodologies, our kids are going to look at an airplane like a giant cigarette.”

Aviation emissions have led to increasing concerns about air quality and pollution. In fact, it is one of the fastest growing sources of the greenhouse gas emissions that cause global climate change.

“It’s important to recognize the negative impact you have and then start a whole series of procedures,” he said. “Fuel is 95% of our emissions, so the biggest effort is not about having electronic vehicles in an airport, but about burning less fossil fuel.”

Sims explains that one way to reduce emissions is for planes to favor continuous, “sliding” descent arrivals over incremental descents, which he says “could save thousands of tons of fuel each year.”

It should be noted that emissions were drastically reduced when the airline industry was hit by the COVID-19 pandemic and travel restrictions were introduced around the world. The CEO still vividly remembers February 24, 2020 as the first time he witnessed the effects of the virus at work.

“It was the first time I saw a screen go completely red,” he said. “Cancellations exceeded bookings. It’s not something you ever want to see. My first thought was that there must be a major system failure.”

“I had to tell everyone that we’re going to have to cut a huge amount of costs out of this business because all the demand is just gone,” he added.

Sims, who had previously witnessed the collapse of airlines in 1991 and 2001, said he had rediscovered humanity’s critical role in leadership. Faced with a critical drop in demand, he decided to give his employees the choice between working from home or reducing hours, leave or early retirement.

“It was my ambition and vision to give people at least a measure of control,” he said. “It can easily feel completely overwhelming, and that sense of victimization can become overwhelming, but when you give people a degree of control over how they want to handle the way they step down to get the airline up and running, they feel that they play an active role instead of being a passive victim.”

“If you keep people informed about communication, and you give them clarity about data or catalysts that you think will be important, you give people hope, and that’s the most important asset in a crisis like this,” he adds. to.

During the height of the pandemic, WestJet lost nearly 90% of its demand combined with 70% of its employees, wiping out roughly “four years of profitability,” Sims said. While the situation remained bleak for the airline industry in the first quarter of 2021, WestJet’s recovery — reportedly between 60 and 70% — is moving faster than expected, Sims said.

How has the health crisis affected the way we travel today? As people travel less, they tend to spend more on the flights they take.

“We notice that people are now trading in their leisure activities,” says Sims. “As the market recovers, we are very pleased with the improved yields and occupancy of our front cabins.”

Moving forward, Sims plans to continue his career in aviation with a senior advisory role at Onex. He noted that his departure from WestJet and return to New Zealand has to do with the distance from his children, whom he has not seen for 2 years due to the pandemic.

“I am still convinced that there is no more important role I have in this world than as a parent,” he said. “I’ve been lucky enough to have some extraordinary life experiences, which I want to share with them.”

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