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Comedians in the sky: WestJet arrives in Soo

Passengers grumble about the knee-knocking seat configurations and lack of hot meals, but when you're flying to Winnipeg for just $109, who's complaining? WestJet, the spunky upstart airline from Calgary, officially arrives in the Soo this afternoon.
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Passengers grumble about the knee-knocking seat configurations and lack of hot meals, but when you're flying to Winnipeg for just $109, who's complaining?

WestJet, the spunky upstart airline from Calgary, officially arrives in the Soo this afternoon.

The first scheduled flight, number WS94, is due to land at 12:40 p.m. on the newly paved runway at Sault Ste. Marie Airport. According to schedule, the Boeing 737 will leave on its return flight to Winnipeg 25 minutes later.

WestJet is definitely a no-frills airline. There's no in-flight movie, no meal service. Just cookies, pretzels and a selection of beverages.

But chances are, both today's flights will be on time. WestJet boasts that 84 percent of its flights are on schedule, almost 10 percent more than the industry average in the United States.

During the first six months of this year, WestJet cancelled just 0.57 per cent of its flights, compared to 3.8 per cent cancelled by U.S. airlines.

Passengers complain that WestJet's seating is so tight that they can't cross their legs. But that's not always a problem on short domestic flights, and everyone loves the cheap fares (as little as $109 one-way from the Soo to Winnipeg). Even more, travellers absolutely rave about WestJet's young, campy flight crews.

"They often just grab the mike and tell jokes throughout the flight," one passenger reported on Epinions.com, a web site that allows consumers to post uncensored reviews of airlines and other products and services.

Another Epinions reviewer reports a WestJet "lipstick contest" in which passengers made lip imprints on table napkins, after which fellow travellers were asked to vote for their favourites.

Other passengers describe in-flight games played with toilet paper, and jovial attempts by one flight crew to hustle a date for the newest WestJet staffer.

Founded less than five years ago with three planes serving five destinations, WestJet now has 27 Boeing 737s serving 20 Canadian cities.

Last Friday, the airline began regularly scheduled service to Thompson, Manitoba. Two days before that, it added Sudbury to its schedule.

In many respects, rapidly growing WestJet is modelled after Dallas-based Southwest Airlines, which last year was North America's most profitable airline. It comes as no surprise, then, that WestJet was the continent's second most profitable airline in 2000.

Also last year, the four Calgary entrepreneurs who started WestJet (Clive Beddoe, Mark Hill, Tim Morgan and Donald Bell) were recognized as Canada's entrepreneurs of the year.

If you'd like to try the new low-cost air service over the holidays, Soo departures for Winnipeg re scheduled for 1:05 p.m. on Tuesday and Thursday of this week, and at the same time on Thursday of next week. An 8:20 a.m. departure is also scheduled for Sunday, Dec. 30.

One cautionary note: WestJet advises that Christmas gifts must be unwrapped prior to boarding any of those flights.