Open skies

After 25 years of Open Skies, Canadian airlines punch above their weight

Monday marks 25 years since the signing of the first Open Skies agreement between Canada and the United States. The deal allowing air carriers to serve any point in the U.S. from any point in Canada has contributed to an explosion of choices, and a shift in the balance of power among airlines crossing the border.

To mark the occasion, Western Aviation News has prepared an occasional series exploring how Open Skies have changed the airline industry and Canada’s place in the world.

This first article compares then and now, a big-picture look at the North American market, and how Canadian airlines and their passengers have taken advantage of the opportunity.



Looking back, it’s hard to imagine how the market worked before Open Skies. Governments, not the market, controlled what airlines flew where and what they could charge.

“Under the old agreement, which was substantially unchanged [between 1975 and 1995], several major American and Canadian cities, including both capitals, were without nonstop service,” said Statistics Canada in a 1997 report on the then-new original Open Skies treaty.

Back then, only 10.8 million people flew between Canada and the U.S., with Canadians making up 56.9% of all travellers, most of them travelling on holiday.

In a way, little has changed. Canadians still like to go south on holiday, especially to escape winter. And they do so in ever greater numbers.

The number of passengers between Canada and the United States has more than doubled in the past 25 years, from the original figure of 10.8 million, to 13.1 million in 1997, and to 26.4 million in 2018, the last year for which data are available.

But how passengers fly across the border has been upended in the quarter-century since Open Skies now that airlines, not regulators, are in control.

In 1994, American air carriers dominated the transborder market, raking in more than 60% of all revenue. By 1996, however, the tide had started to turn, and this year, an analysis by Western Aviation News shows Canadian airlines hold a commanding position.

An examination of airline schedules this week shows that Canadian airlines have done much more to take advantage of Open Skies than their U.S.- based counterparts.

In all, airlines will fly 255 scheduled routes between Canada and the United States this week, with Air Canada accounting for 105 of them, including 46 from its hub in Toronto. Westjet is next with 61 routes. Swoop, with 15 routes and Porter with four routes, round out the list of Canadian airlines with scheduled transborder service.

In all, that’s 195 routes flown this week by Canadian airlines to points in the U.S.

The Open Skies agreement between the U.S. and Canada was a landmark treaty

Bob Wirick, American Airlines

During the same week, U.S.-based airlines, will fly just 60 routes, most of them to the largest Canadian business markets, notably Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, and Calgary.

Among U.S. airlines flying to Canada, United – which benefits from a commercial alliance with Air Canada – is the largest, accounting for 376 flights this week on 24 routes. Delta, which is awaiting approval of a joint venture with Westjet, is next with 346 flights on 21 routes.

An American Airlines Boeing 737 departs Vancouver International Airport in March 2019 (photo: Brett Ballah).

American Airlines, which once owned 25% of Canadian Airlines International, has the third-largest Canadian presence, operating 294 flights on 19 routes.

“The Open Skies agreement between the U.S. and Canada was a landmark treaty, as Canada was one of the early countries to share the vision of a modern commercial aviation market,” said Bob Wirick, Managing Director, International Government Affairs for American Airlines. “We congratulate both governments on this milestone, recognizing their foresight in establishing a framework that has allowed air carriers like American to grow our reach and provide service that our customers value.”

BELOW: A map compiled by WAN shows transborder routes between Canada and the United States on February 20, 2020. Click on the map to manipulate data and see routes and destinations by airline

In Canada, 17 cities have non-stop flights to the U.S., while 57 American cities have service to Canada. Not surprisingly, much of the traffic comes from the heavily populated regions of Southern Ontario.

“Ontario continued to be the largest market in 2018 with 40.7% of all reported scheduled air passenger traffic between Canada and the United States flowing in and out of the province,” said Statistics Canada in a report on transborder traffic issued last month. “British Columbia accounted for 20.9% of all reported transborder traffic, followed by Quebec and Alberta with 15.4% and 15.3%, respectively.”

This month, Canadians are overwhelmingly travelling to warm destinations in the Southern United States.

“Transborder travel continued to be primarily to/from the states of California and Florida,” StatsCan said. “Together, these two states accounted for 37.6% of all traffic with California reporting 19.2% and Florida 18.4%. These states were followed by New York and Nevada, which accounted for 8.8% and 7.8% of all transborder scheduled air passenger traffic.”

Hawai’i and Arizona each accounted for another four per cent of Canada-U.S. travel, meaning more than 62% of all passengers between the two countries flew between Canadian cities and just six U.S. states.

Canadian cities with U.S. non-stop scheduled service17
U.S. transborder destinations west of the Mississippi23
U.S. transborder destinations east of the Mississippi34
Number of destinations in Florida7
Number of destinations in California7
Number of transborder routes flown255
BY THE NUMBERS: Selected facts about service between Canada and the United States.

The numbers don’t count service announced for this summer, such as Air Canada from Montreal to Seattle, Swoop from Edmonton to San Diego, or the return of United service from Ottawa to Chicago. All indications are that Canadian domination of the traffic will continue well into the future.

The effects of Open Skies have not all been positive. While some Canadian airports – the country’s largest hubs in particular – have prospered, others are waking up to the challenges of operating in the trans border market.

More on that in the next article of our series.

Categories: Open skies