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WestJet’s “Other ATC”: Crouching Surcharge, Hidden Taxes

WestJet has been in the news a lot more as of late, both as a result of travel rebounding and because they recently took the huge step of acquiring Sunwing.

Personally, I feel it’s a bit of a shame that WestJet has chosen to spend most of their time and effort on expanding their business rather than seeing to their current operations. For me, WestJet itself still has a long way to go.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in the WestJet Rewards loyalty program. Why? Because not only is it hard to accumulate WestJet Dollars, it can be even harder to spend them on travel to desirable locations because of an infamous “Other ATC” charge that is really more of a cloaked fuel surcharge.

While the WestJet Rewards program’s shortcomings on the accumulation side can be offset by strong co-branded credit cards such as the WestJet RBC World Elite Mastercard, it’s the redemption side that has me worried.

So without further ado, let’s get into the not-so-wonderful world of fuel surcharges – and a sweet spot or two where one can avoid them entirely.

Pop Quiz: WestJet Rewards

The WestJet Rewards program allows members to earn rewards in the form of WestJet Dollars (WSD) anytime that they fly a qualifying revenue fare or spend on their co-branded credit cards.

As the name would suggest, these WSD can be used at a $1 (CAD) value on the base fare of any WestJet flight. While this is nice because it means that your rewards can be used toward any redemption you choose, it unfortunately means you are subject to all the wiles of dynamic market pricing.

If you book your WestJet Rewards flight for London this weekend, do not expect the flat rate you could receive from a competing frequent flyer program such as Avios or Aeroplan.

In addition, membership within the WestJet Rewards program offers customers the opportunity to qualify for WestJet’s various status tiers, and also grants them the unique benefit of Member Exclusive fares.

Prior to the pandemic, these fares were actually some of the most competitive on the market. You could fly across Canada in economy class for only $125 WSD plus taxes and fees.

Sadly, all good things must end, and the new Member Exclusive fares leave much to be desired. While the previous Member Exclusive fares were very affordable, and the requisite WSD could be acquired with ease, the new program is entirely dynamic.

It can take a lot longer to accumulate the necessary WSD, and even when one has them, they may run into the dreaded “Other ATC” charges that make the proposition less than economic.

What Is the WestJet “Other ATC”?

Remember how I said that a WestJet Dollar can only be used on the base fare of a WestJet flight? Let’s explore what this means.

On all flights, you’ll be presented with a schedule of costs. These will break your itinerary into two types of payments, as seen on this itinerary from Calgary to Montreal: “Air Transportation Charges (ATC)” and “Taxes, fees, and charges”.

Now, your WestJet Dollars can only be used on the portion of this itinerary labeled as “Base Fare” – everything else would be your responsibility to pay out of pocket.

For the “Taxes, fees, and charges” section, I think this is fair enough, because you’re given an itemized list of charges and where your money is going. As an aviation enthusiast, far be it from me to be against the development of nicer airports.

What bugs me though is the “Other ATC” column. These charges are totally unspecified, but you’re still liable to pay them with cash. In the above example, $30 in ATC is annoying, but will hardly cause me to change my travel plans.

What annoys me is that one can get Base Fares so insultingly low that redeeming WSD seems completely pointless! Take this example for Calgary to London:

I’d also like to note that this is a Member Exclusive fare (which means it should be cheaper), but the full-price refundable EconoFlex ticket has the same amount of cash-payable taxes and fees – and a higher base fare to boot.

To add insult to injury, even if you attempt to combine the trip with a WestJet companion voucher, you’d still have to pay the full taxes, fees, and ATC for the second passenger.

Where You Will See the WestJet “Other ATC”

WestJet isn’t as prolific as its main competitor Air Canada, and so doesn’t act as a true international airline.

Instead, it focuses mostly on the Canadian domestic market, offering a few more casual flight options abroad to higher-frequency tourist destinations in Western Europe, the Caribbean, and Mexico, usually at a reduced cash price compared to Air Canada.

My personal foibles with WestJet aside, I must acknowledge that they do offer an important competitor to Air Canada. Plus, I sympathize with the fact that, as a business, they need to make returns for their shareholders.

But I still absolutely despise the lack of transparency around the “Other ATC” category, and I will call it what it is: a murkily-disguised fuel surcharge. WestJet should just call this charge what it is instead of pretending it’s something else.

That being said, my complaints will do nothing to make any traveller’s plans get any better. So for those of you with a built-up bank of WestJet Dollars, I’ll now enlighten you as to the spots that seem to heavily suffer from this nebulous “Other ATC” charge.

First up, most sadly, are the ultra-hot tourist destinations in Western Europe. We’ve already seen what happens at London Heathrow, but for a Business flight on WestJet’s Dreamliner from Vancouver to Paris via Calgary, you’d be out $630 in “Other ATC” – and that’s before the other prodigious taxes and fees!

Sadly, the Toronto–Barcelona route isn’t much better, even in Basic Economy.

Sweet Spots for Steering Clear of Surcharges

The good news is that it’s still possible to burn large amounts of WestJet Dollars without wasting your hard-earned cash on taxes and fees. In fact, it looks to me like the Sun destinations can provide outsized value when it comes to avoiding this suspicious “Other ATC” charge. 

For our first example, let’s consider going to Bridgetown, the capital in the bosom of beautiful Barbados. I’ve always wanted to visit Barbados, not only because of their excellent rum, beaches, and festivities, but also because it’s the burial place to the last claimant to the throne of Constantinople.

If we were to attempt to fly to Bridgetown at the height of the Christmas season, we would only be subject to $22 in “Other ATC” fees in addition to $62 in other surcharges.

This would be a no-brainer booking when sitting on large quantities of WSD. But of course, some of us might want a bit of a different flavour for our vacations, and Barbados is wealthy, so things are a bit more expensive.

What about Cuba, the getaway of Hemingway himself? Well, from Toronto to Varadero, we are similarly treated to a non-invasive “Other ATC” charge that allows us to use our WSD properly….

$22 in “Other ATC” plus $116 in other taxes and fees isn’t super low, but neither is it the highway robbery that the fees to Western Europe can feel like. If I had WestJet Dollars to burn and a vacation to book, I wouldn’t hesitate on this itinerary.

Conclusion

It can be difficult to extract value from WestJet Rewards given the way the loyalty program is set up. This task can become much more frustrating when one considers that the “Other ATC” charge is little more than an arbitrary carrier-imposed surcharge hidden under a friendlier-sounding euphemism.

However, this doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to extract some fun and value from your WestJet Dollars. I hope that all of you with an outsized balance can use your WSD can vote with your fleet and fill up flights to some of the more exotic locations that WestJet serves. Hopefully, their leadership team will then reconsider how they use, position, and market their rewards program.

Until next time, may your legs remain un-cramped in your seating. 

14 Comments
  1. Peter

    The old Aeroplan used to do this as well. They called it “carrier imposed surcharge (YQ)”. Used to collect it for other Star Alliance partners as well. The only problem was that UA would not collect it on behalf of the other Star partners. AC said it just passed it on to the partner airline.

    The new Aeroplan does not charge it, but points requirements are up across the board as well as a partner booking fee.

  2. Shawn YEG

    Great heads-up on this fee and it’s effect of eroding the value of the so-called WestJet “dollar”. It’s not worth a dollar , obviously, under these scenarios. “Other ATC” – I suppose some uninformed WestJet Guests may assume it’s something to do with Air Traffic Control and therefore a mandatory charge. In reality, it’s just another Air Travel Charge for some unknown, suspicious reason.

  3. Bill

    Well, due to Covid, and the government traveI ban i had to cancel a 10 day trip in March of 2020.
    They would oy refund me in wj dollars. Fought for a year and a half and finally gave up and rebooked another. Two months later they cancelled all flights to Cayo Coco along with my trip. I asked for a refund again. They gave me back my WJ dollars. So now I have loads of Dollars with a carrier that doesn’t go where I want to go. I complain and they say that wj dollars are transferable. Who the hell would want them?

  4. Matt

    Interestingly, if you book a cash fare then you can use your WJD to cover the ATC charges. For some reason, on a cash fare the ATC charge is coded as Base Fare and not ‘Other ATC’ like it is on a WJ Member Fare. Just found this out recently.

  5. Jeremy

    I was excited to apply for the WJ Mastercard and take advantage of the companion fare along with using the WJ Bonus dollars on a trip to Europe. When it came to booking it, the ATC was so high that there was no point in using the companion fare. I ended up flying to Amsterdam on my own because of COVID and the only way I use use up all the WJD was to book in premium, since the ATC were so high on the regular fare that I could barely use any WJD. Because of this poor experience, I cancelled the card and am sticking with Aeroplan and Alaska Airlines credit cards instead.

  6. Chico

    No longer useful to transfer Avion points to WJD, but Avion’s other transfer partner, BA Avios is just as bad on supplemental fees flying to Europe. Which sort of begs the question, why does anyone bother trying to collect RBC’s Avion rewards

    1. David

      As if Europe is the only interesting place to fly? Look at other destinations and you’ll see the value in BA Avios and RBC’s Avion.

  7. Graeme Boyd

    How about and article on “Using a WestJet Companion voucher”? My third such voucher is about to expire since I’ve never seen any value in using it. Twice I actually had a screen message telling me that the base fare was less than the voucher cost – and that was on transatlantic flights! You can’t use them for business class, you can’t use them on one-way flights back to Canada. Please let us know how we can get value from them?

  8. Steve

    I just searched for YHZ-GLA in June 2022, and the base fare is literally listed a $1. Yes, ONE DOLLAR. All but $1 of the fare is taxes and Other ATC. Pretty insulting to loyal customers/frequent flyers.

  9. Mitch

    At this point I don’t think anyone flies WestJet because they want to – they do it because they have to.

    1. litokid

      I liked the explanation and topic and agree with the points raised, but was disappointed with the relatively sparse amount of actual data. Ultimately the advice to take from this is “Western Europe has high OTC, Barbados and Cuba do not”.

      So flying South seems better. What about domestic flights? Are these fees affected by class of service? Do they seem affected at all by distance as a secondary measure (i.e. Barcelona being farther than London)?

  10. Big E

    “Hopefully, their leadership team will then reconsider how they use, position, and market their rewards program.”

    Narrator: They didn’t

    1. Kirin

      I read that in the Ron Howard Arrested Development voice. Thanks for the chuckle.

  11. Abraham

    Would be so nice to see them add the ability to use your WestJet dollars for the taxes portion too.

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