Sunday reader: The week in Canadian aviation

Westjet celebrated its 23rd birthday this week. It started with just three aircraft and now has 178, dominated by the Boeing 737 (above) (photo: Brett Ballah).

One thing became clear this week: it will not be a year of huge growth in the domestic Canadian market. At least, not for Canada’s major airlines, Westjet and Air Canada.

Except, that is, in London, Ontario.

London has long been one of those overlooked cities in Canada. Too close to Toronto to support more than a handful of flights, it plugged away on the margins of aviation. The only big surprise coming a few years back when Westjet decided to serve the city from its hub in Calgary once a day.

How times have changed.

Suddenly this summer, London will be home to 75% more domestic capacity, with new flights to Calgary (Air Canada), Edmonton (Swoop), Abbotsford (Swoop), Halifax (Swoop) and Montreal (Westjet). Now, the airport is talking openly about hitting one million passengers in 2019, almost double the traffic in one year. That would put London in the same class as Abbotsford Airport, which specializes in ultra low-cost flying out of the Vancouver area.

This in a year when both national airlines have warned that their focus would be on international growth, particularly in business class, with minimal capacity growth within Canada.

An Air Canada Boeing 777 departs Vancouver March 2, 2019 (photo: Brett Ballah).

Fact is, Air Canada in particular is concentrating on building up its three hubs this year. Just this week, Air Canada announced new winter service from Vancouver to Auckland, New Zealand, from Toronto to Quito, Ecuador and from Montreal to Sao Paolo, Brazil.

It’s part of a strategy to shift planes from European flights in the summer to destinations in the Southern hemisphere in the winter. Air Canada hopes the move will soften the summer peaks and winter valleys that traditionally define aviation in Canada.

So if you live in Toronto, Vancouver or Montreal, you’re sitting pretty. Toronto reported its final numbers for 2018 this week, showing a record of almost 50 million passengers. Montreal’s passenger numbers in January jumped a whopping 7.9% over January 2018, and early numbers show Vancouver’s passenger loads increased five per cent over the previous year.

Not to be outdone, Westjet reinforced its Calgary hub this morning, launching service to Atlanta, where its partner Delta maintains one of the world’s largest operations.

Where does that leave the rest of the country? Well, the ultra low-cost carriers seem to hold out some hope. Swoop is the one growing segment of Westjet’s domestic operation, and though it has yet to release a summer schedule, Flair Airlines has said it cut flying to several U.S. destinations so it could concentrate on domestic routes.

A Flair Airlines Boeing 737-400 lands at Vancouver International Airport March 2, 2019 (photo: Brett Ballah).

But there’s always the leisure airlines, right? Yes, there are, though it comes with a caution.

Last April, thousands of people were left waiting for Sunwing flights when an ice storm hit Toronto. Air traffic, as you might expect, was crippled, but Sunwing’s traffic even more so.

You see, Sunwing, with its roster of flights to sun destinations, decided to try to maintain its normal schedule. Chaos ensued, and the Canadian Transportation Agency, which regulates air travel, received almost 600 complaints from passengers, for such things as poor communication from the airline, lost luggage and being stranded on aircraft for hours on end.

But Sunwing, in a submission, says it only committed “minimal breaches” of the rules when everything went pear-shaped. And their argument, if it’s accepted, could prove disastrous for government promises to protect the flying public through a ‘Charter of Passenger Rights.’

The charter was created after complaints of passengers being left waiting on the tarmac for hours on end. Supposedly, people should be compensated if that happens.

But Sunwing’s argument suggests loopholes in the regulations could be large enough to drive a truck through. In essence, Sunwing is saying it did everything it could to manage an unmanageable situation and keep passengers happy.

It’s now up to the CTA to decide if the argument holds.

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