Rob McCulloch – WestJet
There isn’t any airline passenger who enjoys flight delays or disruptions. And airlines don’t make money with aircraft on the ground. Safety has always been the top priority for Canada’s regulatory framework governing aviation and air travel. Unfortunately, in the recently proposed amendments to Canada’s Air Passenger Protection Regulations, or APPR, passenger convenience and entitlements seem to be of greater concern than passenger safety.
“This approach needs to be revised and runs counter to the safety culture of our industry,” says Rob McCulloch, associate general counsel for WestJet, which provides service to 105 destinations in 26 countries.
In his decade-long tenure with WestJet, Rob McCulloch has supported significant aviation regulatory changes. He’s currently anticipating amendments to the APPR, which impose compensation entitlements for delays and cancellations—the Canadian Transportation Agency proposes holding airlines financially responsible for almost every flight disruption, regardless of reason.
He believes airlines should not be penalized for matters they cannot control, such as inclement weather, airport operational issues, or delays due to airport security lines. He adds that under the APPRs, airlines are the only entity responsible for passenger rights, despite not acting alone in the travel supply chain. This is why WestJet has continued to advocate for a model of shared accountability amongst airports, third parties, and government agencies.
He adds that carriers do not operate in a vacuum and cannot be the insurance company for the entire industry. McCulloch is particularly concerned about mechanical issues, and he believes all airlines should be afforded sufficient time to properly repair such issues—without the threat of fines hanging over them.
“Both regulators and airlines want passengers to arrive at their destination as quickly and safely as possible—but unforeseen maintenance issues can occur, and the proper repair of such issues may cause delays and inconvenience a guest’s journey. But at the core of our industry is safety, which cannot be overlooked,” says McCulloch, who has been with WestJet since April 2013 and was promoted to his current role in March 2023.
He adds that the Canadian and global aviation industry has significantly changed since the APPRs were introduced in 2019. He believes the proposed amendments only hold airlines responsible for flight disruptions, even though other actors in the travel supply chain may be the cause. An airline should not be held responsible for delays caused by airport operational issues, staffing shortages at a navigation service provider or security-related issues, he says.
“We will never compromise on safety,” McCulloch tells Vanguard in July 2023. “No amount of regulatory fine will force us to operate an unsafe flight or in an unsafe environment. Despite everything experienced by our operations in just the past year—recovering from the pandemic, airport operation issues and extreme weather events—we have maintained a safe operation. We’re very proud of this.”
Joining the fleet
Unrelated to regulatory changes, McCulloch supported WestJet’s recent acquisition of Sunwing Airlines, a deal he says will significantly expand WestJet’s vacation offerings, making it the largest tour operator in Canada.
The acquisition of Sunwing closed on May 1 and will add 18 Boeing 737 aircraft to WestJet’s fleet, bringing its total aircraft close to 200, allowing for more passenger flights and routes.
“This will allow us to enhance our sun and leisure offerings, which Sunwing excels at, and bring in more affordable and accessible travel opportunities to vacation spots for Canadians,” he says.
He adds the acquisition and subsequent integration are ongoing, and the two companies have complementary business models—WestJet, as the network airline, and Sunwing Vacations, as the tour operator. According to McCulloch, combining Sunwing Vacations, one of Canada’s largest vacation tour operators, with WestJet Vacations will create the largest tour operator in the country. Since the acquisition, he’s been supporting integration and regulatory matters.
Soaring in on legal wings
Aviation runs deep in McCulloch’s blood. He grew up in the industry and watched his family operate a local flight school, a charter company, and a maintenance facility –allowing him to work alongside his dad and brother. Not only is his father an aircraft mechanic and pilot, but his brother followed suit before also becoming a helicopter pilot.
“I grew up flying in and fixing various single and multi-engine aircraft,” he says. “It’s a fascinating industry, and I’m fortunate to have found a role in it.”
Yet, he wasn’t sure if he wanted a career in the industry, as he wasn’t sure if he wanted to be a commercial pilot. He did, however, have an interest in law. He obtained his bachelor’s degree in political science and sociology from the University of Victoria before earning his law degree in 2009 from the University of Alberta.
McCulloch worked as a summer student and then a full-time lawyer with a Canadian law firm for almost four years —until an unexpected opportunity presented itself.
In April 2013, WestJet had an opening for a legal counsel position, which meant he could go in-house and dive back into aviation. Between competing in triathlons and spending time with his wife and their three sons (8-year-old twins and a four-year-old), he’s watched WestJet grow and expand its offering and fleet.
When he started, the airline only had 737s operating mainly in North America, but it now operates smaller Bombardier Q400s for regional routes, and larger widebody Boeing 787s for long-haul international travel, taking passengers across North America, Europe, and even to Japan.
“I know it’s not the same, but much like a pilot or a mechanic, I get to see the tangible results of my work here at WestJet,” McCulloch says. “I love how I’ve been able to combine my two passions—and help WestJet get Canadians to their destination through safe and affordable air travel.”
View this feature in the Vanguard Fall II 2023 Edition here.
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