Cuts to air travel services hit 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 airline has also cut other direct flights from Calgary to Ottawa and Halifax, among other cities.
You’re not alone, as flying within Canada is very different from what it was before the pandemic began, following dozens of route changes and an overall decrease in options.
The latest statistics show a notable decrease in tickets available 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 almost 28 per cent fewer seats.
Over the weekend, Air Canada pilots held a rally to oppose recent cuts in Calgary.
“We find the route reductions, the massive cuts that have occurred, very concerning,” said Hudy, Air Canada’s first officer.
“As Canadians, we really want to have that reliable, sustainable and competitive aviation network,” he said.
Hudy is also chair of Air Canada’s Elected Master Council, which represents pilots during ongoing negotiations over a new contract with the airline.
Fewer tickets on sale
Flair and Porter have increased the number of domestic flights, but the total number of seats this month on all airlines is almost 20 percent lower compared to November 2019.
Arriving at Toronto Pearson International Airport for a morning flight, Tim Cestnick is not surprised to see that his flight is delayed. As someone who travels several times a month for business and pleasure, he is getting used to the turbulent experience of flying in Canada.
“I never know when a flight will be delayed or not,” Cestnick says. “Every flight I’ve been on in the last six months has been delayed or cancelled.”
The frequent traveler, who works in wealth management and as a financial planner in Toronto, has had to adjust his travel plans accordingly. If he has a midday meeting in Calgary or Vancouver, he used to take an early morning flight. However, due to constant delays and fewer flights, he now travels the night before.
“I actually have to pay more money to travel because I’m covering the hotel bills for an extra night,” he said. “That happens all the time now.”
There is not only a reduction in domestic air travel in the country, but also an increasing level of regionalization, as Air Canada has focused on eastern Canada, while WestJet has prioritized western Canada.
“I would say we have adequate and competent service, but it is not at the price levels or options that consumers are accustomed to in many other countries, especially in the United States and Europe,” said Ambarish Chandra, associate professor of economics at the University of Toronto.
Regionalization of the two largest companies could result in higher prices, he said.
“It’s not great because it means that there are entire communities that are, if not completely isolated, some members of those communities simply find it unaffordable to travel, so they can’t make the kind of links that we might hope for.” in a well-connected economy, in a well-connected society,” Chandra said.
The high fees charged by airlines during the busy summer months have not dropped much so far this fall, said Rick Erickson, an independent aviation analyst based in Calgary. Those prices, along with concerns about affordability across the country, could give airlines pause in adding new routes and flights.
“Aviation is still one of those discretionary purchases for most consumers,” he said.
Statistics also suggest that the two largest airlines are placing a higher priority on international flights compared to before the pandemic.
Air Canada plans to fly six per cent more seats to destinations outside Canada and the US 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 flights because of the longer distances, Erickson said. Airlines can also get a financial boost, he said, by moving a considerable amount of cargo on those flights.
Overall, Canada’s largest airports have returned to pre-pandemic activity. The number of passengers screened at the country’s eight largest airports is similar to 2019 figures, according to daily data from the Canadian Air Transport Safety Authority (CATSA).
For its part, WestJet rejected the idea that flying within Canada is more difficult now than it was four years ago.
The total number of tickets on sale may have declined, but airlines are flying fuller planes, said Andy Gibbons, the airline’s vice president of external affairs, “so while seats may be fewer, load factors may be older.”
As a private company, the airline does not publish its financial details, but Gibbons said that after three years of losses, WestJet expects to turn a profit this year.
“We are doing everything we can to meet the economic demands of each community as we recover from the pandemic,” he said. “Every city is different from the next, so overall domestic service is down, but on a route like Toronto and Calgary, there are more options and more airlines flying it. 1698950301 than ever in the history of Canada.
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 stopping flights between Toronto and Montreal this summer.
“We are in no way dividing between east and west in Canada. We were in Atlantic Canada earlier 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 percent compared to pre-pandemic fares.
Air Canada did not respond to a request for an interview.
For Cestnick, the frequent traveler, his level of productivity at work can be affected by flight delays and other travel interruptions. Many of their meetings are now video conferences, but travel is still necessary.
“We have to go out and see our customers. It’s very important to see them face to face,” he said. “The flight offer is no longer as wide as before. Finding the right time to arrive, take off and arrive is no longer as easy.”