Westjet scales back service to Atlantic Canada


Westjet drops 100 weekly flights to four cities in the Maritimes along with Quebec City

Service to Halifax and St. John’s is scaled back, airline blames travel restrictions and fee increases

Westjet Atlantic
A Westjet De Havilland Dash 8-400 departs Vancouver International Airport in March (photo: Brett Ballah).

Eight months into the pandemic, Westjet has made its first domestic route cuts, slashing 80% of capacity in Atlantic Canada and cancelling service to Quebec City.

Westjet announced Wednesday it was suspending service to Charlottetown, Sydney, Moncton, and Fredericton, along with Quebec City. It blamed ongoing pandemic-related travel restrictions.

“It has become increasingly unviable to serve these markets,” said Ed Sims, WestJet’s President and Chief Executive Officer. “Since the pandemic’s beginning, we have worked to keep essential air service to all of our domestic airports, however, demand for travel is being severely limited by restrictive policies and third-party fee increases that have left us out of runway without sector-specific support.”

Westjet, along with other airlines and airports, has called for government loans and subsidies for aviation. Air traffic this summer was down 85% or more across the country. So far, Ottawa has expressed support for aviation, but no money has been put on the table.

Westjet will maintain service from Halifax to Toronto twice a day and to Calgary nine times a week. The airline will also fly 11 times a week between Halifax and St. John’s.

Devastating to communities

All four provinces in Atlantic Canada restrict entry from outside the region to stem the spread of COVID-19. To boost travel, they created the ‘Atlantic bubble’ allowing people to travel freely within the region.

The cuts take effect November 2.

“As we approach what would normally be the busy holiday season, we recognize all too well the impact this will have on families hoping to be together once again,” said Sims in a video. “I am truly sorry that we will be unable to connect parts of Atlantic Canada to the rest of our network.”

“This unfortunate news further demonstrates the destructive impact of the pandemic on aviation and the communities we serve,” said the National Airports Council of Canada in a tweet. “Underscores immediate need for government action on sectoral support and testing.”

Weekly domestic Westjet departures from key cities (source: Westjet schedule).

The decision is a blow to the airline. Westjet started service to Atlantic Canada in 2003. It pioneered flights between Calgary and Halifax and later added service between Alberta and St. John’s. Sims said Westjet helped cut airfares in the region by 50%.

Westjet also steadfastly maintained service to all of its Canadian destinations throughout the pandemic. That was in stark contrast to Air Canada which dropped a number of destinations in March and only slowly reintroduced service. Air Canada also permanently dropped service to eight Canadian cities, two of them in Atlantic Canada.

Fee increases

Sims slammed fee increases being imposed because of the pandemic. NAV Canada, the country’s air traffic controller, raised rates almost 30% in September. Airports are also raising fees to make up a dramatic shortfall in passenger revenues.

“What has made the situation even more difficult is that five of the airports we currently serve in Atlantic Canada are part of a larger group of airports that have announced substantial fee increases,” he said. “With thousands out of work, and a COVID-induced recession in full swing, price increases that make air travel even more expensive are not what the travelling public needs or can even afford.”

Airports across Canada must fund their own operations, renovations and expansions. They expect COVID to cost them more than $4.5 billion in lost revenue by the end of next year. They have cut staff and cancelled construction projects to control expenses. But many are finding the cuts don’t cover the shortfall.

Westjet also announced 100 people would lose their jobs. That’s over and above thousands of people who lost their jobs when Westjet contracted out most of its airport ground services in June.

Sims vowed to return service to the Maritimes. “On behalf of Westjet, we are committed to returning to Atlantic Canada when the situation improves,” he said.

He did not commit to returning to Quebec City.

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