TORONTO, March 24 (Reuters) - WestJet Airlines Ltd (WJA.TO) said on Tuesday it expects to achieve significant growth in market share over the medium to long term, despite what is anticipated to be a difficult 2009.
A strong cash balance and low debt leave the company well positioned to take advantage of growth opportunities in the current weak environment, as was the case last year, Vito Culmone, WestJet's chief financial officer, told analysts at a conference in Toronto.
"We are one of only three airlines ... that made any money in 2008," Culmone said, while acknowledging this year would be much tougher.
Canada's No. 2 airline projects its capacity to grow by just 6 percent to 7 percent in the first quarter and by a maximum of 5 percent for all of 2009. In 2008, WestJet's capacity ballooned by nearly 18 percent.
Culmone said that the low ticket prices currently dominating the market were a problem, but lower fuel prices would provide "significant relief from a margin perspective."
The company's fleet of Boeing 737 aircraft currently numbers 78. It will grow to 85 by the end of the year, and to 121 through 2013, adding to market share and revenues, Culmone said.
The airline owns two-thirds of its fleet, and leases the other third, which it says gives it considerable flexibility, he said.
The company expects to boost its share of the C$5 billion ($4.1 billion) domestic market to 40 to 45 percent by 2013 from around 36 to 37 percent at present, Culmone said.
On flights to the United States, it plans to increase its market share to around 20 percent by 2013 from 11 percent.
Culmone said significant contributors to WestJet's growth would come from its WestJet Vacations unit, flexibility in where and when it deploys its aircraft, and partnerships with other airlines such SouthWest Airlines Co (LUV.N).
Looking to flights to Mexico and the Caribbean, markets the company entered only in 2006, WestJet said it expects its share to increase to between 15 and 20 percent by 2013 from about 11 percent now.
"We see in Mexico and the Caribbean easily 10 additional scheduled destinations that we can see ourselves growing into by 2013," said Culmone.
WestJet said it has over C$800 million in unrestricted cash on hand and an adjusted debt to equity ratio of 1.78.
$1=$1.23 Canadian Reporting by John McCrank; editing by Rob Wilson