Sunday reader: the week in Canadian aviation

Amazon Prime Air Boeing 767, similar to the aircraft that crashed near Houston (photo: Amazon.com/Chad Slattery).

Tragedy struck the aviation world Saturday when three crew members aboard an Atlas Air Boeing 767, operated for Amazon Prime, were presumably killed when their plane crashed near Houston.

“Everyone within the company is deeply saddened by this event,” said Atlas Air in a statement. “We are now working with the emergency services and other agencies to establish the circumstances around exactly what happened.”

The National Transportation Safety Board dispatched a team to lead the investigation into what went wrong.

The crash happened on what was National Aviation Day in Canada, marking the anniversary of the first flight flown in Baddeck, Nova Scotia. In 120 years, the industry has become a vital way to connect Canadians within the country, and around the world.

“Canada’s aerospace industry generates $29.8 billion in annual revenues; represents 211,000 direct and indirect jobs in Canada; 140,000 jobs in the airlines, airports and related services industry and 5% of all jobs in the North,” said Canadian Transport Minister Marc Garneau.

In fact, never before have Canada’s airlines flown so many people, to the point that some airports are bursting at the seams.

A few hundred of those jobs are in the ultra low-cost segment, a relatively new market in Canada that started to sprout in the 1990s with Jetsgo and Greyhound Air, but died back in the face of fierce competition and questionable management, until Flair and Swoop hit the scene last year.

But Flair suffered a major setback this week, when it told hundreds of passengers their flights, and holiday plans, had been cancelled. Flair pulled the plug on most of its routes to the United States, leaving behind a skeleton operation to sun destinations.

Routes from its Edmonton hub to Florida and California were killed several weeks ahead of schedule, as were flights from Winnipeg and Toronto.

“I instantly felt sick to my stomach,” affected passenger Kris Buurman told Western Aviation News. She had to rebook for nine family members to Florida for Spring Break. She was one of hundreds of people taking to social media to ask Flair to do the right thing and either rebook flights or pay compensation.

So far, Flair has offered to refund flights, plus a $50 voucher, and rebook passengers, but only for people who already started their holiday.

On a happier note, Westjet launched a new era with its first Boeing 787 revenue flight, between Toronto and Calgary.

WestJet Dreamliner launches first revenue flight (photo: CNW Group/WESTJET)

A new era, because the once-scrappy low-cost airline now squarely believes its future lies in competing with the “big boys,” serving premium passengers on prestigious international routes.

But it’s not a strategy without risk. In a feature report in ROB Magazine, writer Joe Castaldo asks: “WestJet is in trouble. Is becoming more like Air Canada the fix?”

Westjet came to life vowing not to fly “wingtip to wingtip” against Air Canada, meaning they wouldn’t compete directly with the country’s biggest airline, a strategy that helped kill Canadian Airlines, which sagged under a heavy debt load before it was finally swallowed up by its larger rival. Westjet instead began life with one type of aircraft searching for opportunities and creating new routes, such as Edmonton-Kelowna.

Since making that vow, however, Westjet has started drifting away from the point-to-point approach where flights would live or die based on their use. Now, it is creating a fortress in Calgary, funnelling traffic from across the West to connecting flights in Alberta’s largest city.

“Our non-Alberta connections are now more than double the Alberta connections,” Westjet President and CEO Ed Sims told investors, “and we continue to see that growth in connecting traffic to and from Calgary.”

So, is being more like Air Canada the fix? It’s a question we at Western Aviation News have pondered for years. In 2018, Westjet produced a profit of $91.5 million, down 67% from the previous year. Even Sims said the airline’s performance was “well below where we could, and should, perform.”

Then again, Air Canada’s profit was $167 million, down a whopping 92% in the same period.

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