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West Kelowna  

WestJet: 20 years later

From 220 employees to more than 13,000, WestJet has grown exponentially during the last 20 years.

In 1996, an upstart airline with only three Boeing 737s started flying to five destinations in Canada, including Kelowna.

It was a leap year the February WestJet opened for business, and taking a leap is what Geoff Seddon did when he decided to leave an established airline in Calgary to become a WestJetter in Kelowna.

Seddon was the only WestJet mechanic at the airport, and recalls it was basically him and his tool box.

“A lot of airlines have come and gone since then, and it was a big choice to leave the comfort of an airline I had been with for such a long time,” he said Monday during 20-year celebrations at YLW. “I think because of the people and our culture, we made it work. It was a can-do attitude, and because of that we survived and the community just grew.”

And so did Kelowna's airport. Seddon recalled the old building with a single gate at YLW.

“We used to have to push the stairs to the airplane, now we have automatic bridges. We used to carry people in wheelchairs up the stairs manually,” he said.

The year he started, he worked from February to August without a day off.

Carole Mcrae and Carmen Prive also remember the days of pushing stairs and only having one radio to work with. The two women have worked side by side for WestJet since its inception – and both say they they could see themselves working for the company for another 20 years.

“We started on Feb. 29, 1996, with one flight a day. And that August we went to five flights a day, so it made a big jump, and we were basically full-time after that,” said Prive.

Prive says she remembers people at the time wondering what exactly WestJet was and that no one was really sure what to make of the new airline.

These days, WestJet is making international headway.

“We are flying to Europe. I never thought we would be here today saying that 20 years later,” said Mcrae.

Kelowna International Airport director Sam Samaddar says part of WestJet’s success had to do with buying used aircraft to keep costs down, along with a single class of seating and no in-flight frills.

“From the start, WestJet fostered the corporate culture, which has become so well known today, by rewarding employees or WestJetters as they are known with stock purchases and profit-sharing plans and encouraging a casual, upbeat work environment.”

YLW also contributes a lot of its success to WestJet, which is responsible for 65 per cent of the market for flights out of the Okanagan.

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