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After Southwest deal falls through, WestJet eyeing other U.S. partners

CALGARY - WestJet Airlines Ltd.'s deal with Southwest Airlines may not have panned out, but the carrier's new CEO said there are plenty of other potential U.S. partners waiting in the wings.

CALGARY - WestJet Airlines Ltd.'s deal with Southwest Airlines may not have panned out, but the carrier's new CEO said there are plenty of other potential U.S. partners waiting in the wings.

"There are lots of airlines interested in partnering with WestJet so that they can have access to the front door of Canada through an affiliation with us," Gregg Saretsky told reporters after his company's annual meeting Tuesday.

Earlier this month, WestJet (TSX:WJA) and Dallas-based Southwest Airlines called off an agreement to sell seats on one-another's planes. Southwest said it couldn't accept changes it said WestJet had demanded be made to a code-share deal reached in 2008.

On the surface, the two airlines seemed like an ideal match. Both pride themselves on their cheery and easy-going corporate cultures and ability to provide low fares to their customers. Both keep their costs low by flying only one type of aircraft in their fleet - the Boeing 737.

"I think that door is closed for now," said Saretsky of the possibility of reviving the Southwest deal some time in the future.

"We have both assessed how to move forward and we have decided that independently moving forward is the right course to pursue right now."

WestJet has signed a agreement with Delta Air Lines with an option to acquire slots at LaGuardia Airport in New York, but an alliance has not been reached.

There are around 70 airlines around the world that have shown interest in inking a relationship with WestJet, Saretsky said.

"We are, at this point, prioritizing airlines that have the best opportunity for us and there are a couple of large U.S. carriers that have signalled some interest."

On the international front, WestJet already has code-share deals with Air France and the Netherlands' KLM, and aims to have a code-share partner on every continent in the future, Saretsky said.

Saretsky has said he wants WestJet to dominate half of the Canadian market, intensifying already fierce competition with Air Canada (TSX:AC.B). It currently has a 35 per cent to 37 per cent share of the Canadian market.

Earlier Tuesday, WestJet said it earned $13.8 million, or 10 cents per share, compared with $37.4 million, or 29 cents per share, in the first quarter of 2009.

During the quarter, WestJet booked a $3.7-million expense related to the resignation of Sean Durfy, who announced in March he was leaving to spend more time with his family. Durfy is expected to stay on in an advisory role until September.

Stripped of one-time items, WestJet's net income was $17.5 million, or 12 cents per share, compared with $35.2 million, or 29 cents per share in the first quarter of 2009.

Analysts were on average expecting earnings of 15 cents per share, according to estimates compiled by Thomson Reuters.

WestJet revenue improved to $619.8 million in the first three months of this year, up seven per cent from $579.3 million in the first quarter of 2009.

WestJet shares were off 1.8 per cent, or 25 cents, at $13.40 on the Toronto Stock Exchange around Tuesday.

 
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