July 24, 2024

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Flying within Canada affords less choice than before pandemic, after ‘massive cuts’

Air travel services cuts hit close to home for Charlene Hudy earlier this year, when the Saskatoon pilot discovered she would no longer be able to fly her own airline directly to Calgary, the nearest hub airport.

Air Canada cut the route in January along with service between Calgary and Regina. Since then, the country’s largest carrier has also slashed other direct flights out of Calgary to Ottawa and Halifax, among other cities.

She isn’t alone as flying within Canada is much different from how it was before the pandemic began following dozens of route changes and an overall decline in options.

The latest statistics show a noticeable decline in available tickets for flights within the country. Air Canada is selling about 25 per cent fewer seats this month compared to November 2019, according to aviation analytics firm Cirium, while WestJet is offering nearly 28 per cent fewer seats.

On the weekend, Air Canada pilots held a demonstration to oppose the recent cuts in Calgary.

“We find it very concerning the route reductions, the massive cuts that have happened,” said Hudy, a first officer with Air Canada.

“As Canadians, we really want to have that reliable, sustainable and competitive aviation network,” she said.

Hudy is also chair of the Air Canada Master Elected Council, which represents pilots during ongoing negotiations on a new contract with the airline.

Fewer tickets for sale

Flair and Porter have increased the number of domestic flights, but the overall number of seats this month on all airlines is nearly 20 per cent lower compared to November 2019.

Arriving at Toronto Pearson International Airport for a morning flight, Tim Cestnick is not surprised to see his flight is delayed. As someone who travels several times every month for business and pleasure, he’s growing accustomed to the turbulent experience of flying in Canada.

“I never know when a flight is going to be delayed or not,” said Cestnick. “Every single flight I’ve been on in the last six months has either been delayed or cancelled.”

The frequent flyer, who works in wealth management and as a financial planner in Toronto, has had to adjust his travel plans accordingly. If he has a noon meeting in Calgary or Vancouver, he used to catch an early morning flight. However, because of consistent delays and fewer numbers of flights, he now travels the night before.

“I actually have to pay more money to travel because I’m covering hotel bills for an extra night,” he said. “That happens all the time now.”

A man is interviewed at Pearson airport in Toronto.
‘I never know when a flight is going to be delayed or not,’ says Tim Cestnick, who flies regularly for work and pleasure. (Claude Beaudoin/CBC)

Not only is there a reduction in domestic air travel in the country, but an increasing level of regionalization as Air Canada has focused on Eastern Canada, while WestJet has prioritized Canada’s West.

“I’d say we have adequate, competent service, but it’s not at the levels of either prices or options that consumers in many other countries are used to, especially in the United States and Europe,” said Ambarish Chandra, an associate professor of economics at the University of Toronto.

The regionalization of the two largest carriers could result in higher prices, he said.

“It’s not great because it means that there’s entire communities that are, if not entirely cut off, some members of those communities just find it unaffordable to travel, and so they’re not able to establish the kind of links that we might hope for in a well-connected economy, in a well-connected society,” said Chandra.

Economic concerns

The high fares charged by airlines during the busy summer months haven’t fallen by very much so far this fall, said Rick Erickson, an independent aviation analyst based in Calgary. Those price tags, coupled with affordability concerns across the country, could be giving airlines pause about adding new routes and flights.

“Aviation remains one of those discretionary purchases for most consumers,” he said.

Statistics also suggest the two largest airlines are giving a higher priority to international flights compared to pre-pandemic. 

Air Canada is scheduled to fly six per cent more seats to destinations outside Canada and the U.S. this month compared to November 2019, according to Cirium, while WestJet has increased the number of those seats by 28 per cent.

International flights are typically more profitable than domestic because of the longer distances, said Erickson. Airlines can also earn a financial boost, he said, by moving a considerable amount of cargo on those flights.

Overall, Canada’s largest airports are back to pre-pandemic activity. The number of screened passengers at the country’s eight largest airports is similar to figures from 2019, according to daily data from the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA).

Turn a profit

For its part, WestJet rejected the notion that flying within Canada is more difficult now compared to four years ago. 

The total number of tickets for sale may be down, but airlines are flying fuller aircraft, said Andy Gibbons, the airline’s vice-president of external affairs, “So while seats may be less, load factors may be higher.”

As a private company, the airline does not release its financial details, but Gibbons said after three years of losses, WestJet is hoping to turn a profit this year.

“We’re doing our best to meet every community’s economic demands while recovering from the pandemic,” he said. “Each city is different from the others, so domestic overall is down, but on a route like Toronto and Calgary, there’s more options and more airlines flying it 1717140592 than have ever in the entire history of Canada.”

WATCH | Regionalization concerns of the two major airlines: 

WestJet executive denies the airline is prioritizing Western Canada over other parts of the country

The airline is expanding in different parts of the nation, says WestJet’s Andy Gibbons.

Gibbons said the airline is not prioritizing Western Canada over other parts of the country, despite cutting service to parts of Eastern Canada, such as no longer flying between Toronto and Montreal this summer.

“We are in no way, shape or form dividing between east and west in Canada. We were just in Atlantic Canada earlier on in the summer when we announced new direct flights between St. John’s, Newfoundland, and Calgary, and Moncton and Calgary.”

Gibbons said domestic ticket prices are down 20 per cent compared to pre-pandemic fares.

Air Canada did not respond to an interview request.

For Cestnick, the frequent flyer, his level of productivity at work can be impacted by flight delays and other travel disruptions. Many of his meetings are now video conference calls, but travel is still needed.

“We have to get out and see our clients. It’s so important to see them face to face,” he said. “The choice of flights has not been as wide as it used to be. Finding the right time to arrive, to take off and arrive is no, is not that easy any longer.”

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