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WestJet cuts: East Coast effects could be felt for years

This Boeing 737-800 aircraft operated by WestJet landed safely at the Deer Lake Airport on Wednesday after declaring an emergency on approach to the airport.
WestJet announced Wednesday that, as of Nov. 2, it will be "indefinitely suspending" operations to Moncton, Fredericton, Sydney and Charlottetown.

Airline industry turmoil hit the East Coast hard Wednesday as WestJet announced plans to cut routes and reduce flights across the region.

Effective Nov. 2, the company will cease all operations at two airports in New Brunswick (Fredericton and Moncton), as well as those in Charlottetown and Sydney.

In Halifax, seating capacity will be reduced by 70 per cent compared to this time last year. The Halifax-to-Ottawa service that WestJet intended to run daily in 2020 and had operated twice a week will be suspended, as will the Halifax-to-Sydney service, which operated twice a  week. St. John’s will lose direct service to Toronto, which has operated five days a week.

Overall, WestJet will cut 80 per cent of its seating capacity in the Atlantic region and eliminate more than 100 weekly flights.

In a news release, WestJet president and CEO Ed Sims cited the Atlantic bubble and increased third-party fees as factors in the decision to temporarily reduce service to the region.

Doug Newson, CEO of the Charlottetown Airport Authority
Doug Newson, CEO of the Charlottetown Airport Authority

“We understand this is devastating news to the communities, our airport partners and the WestJetters who rely on our airline, but these suspensions were unavoidable without the prioritization of rapid-testing or support for the introduction of a safe Canadian bubble,” he said. “We remain committed to the Atlantic region and it is our intent to resume operations as soon as it becomes economically viable to do so.”

The airline industry has been decimated by the COVID-19 pandemic, with travel restrictions dramatically decreasing passenger traffic at airports throughout the world. Porter Airlines said Tuesday it is pushing off its restart date to Dec. 15 at the earliest. It has delayed its service resumption half a dozen times so far since March.

The Westjet release confirmed the move will result in further layoffs at airports in Fredericton, Moncton, Sydney and Charlottetown. The company previously announced a round of layoffs in June.

Atlantic reaction

Halifax International Airport Authority (HIAA) said in an emailed statement that the effects of the WestJet cutbacks and others will be felt for some time to come. 

“We have worked hard over the past several years to build a strong network with connections to key domestic, U.S. and European markets that has been unraveled in a matter of months. It will be very difficult and take years to get some of those services back, if ever.” 

Wednesday’s service reductions eroded “key connections within our province to Sydney, and to our nation’s capital in Ottawa, reducing choice and options to those locations for our community members,” HIAA said in the statement. 

WestJet has two Toronto flights per week out of Charlottetown, but the airline was expected to reduce that service to once per week in November prior to Wednesday’s announcement, said Doug Newson, CEO of the Charlottetown Airport Authority.

“They’re a significant part of our market here, roughly 20 per cent,” he said. “Their schedule is very seasonal, so they offer a limited schedule in the wintertime and it grows obviously for the peak summer. In 2020, we were expecting to launch a Calgary service with WestJet and additional flights to Toronto, so obviously those things did not happen.”

Newson added that the news of WestJet suspending its service is disappointing, but not surprising with less demand due to travel restrictions.

“Any time you lose an airline, it’s just another blow in a rough couple of months that we’ve had at the airport,” he said. “But (understandable) until things change in terms of travel restrictions and the safe movement of people throughout the country. It’s very disappointing news for the Charlottetown airport and for P.E.I., but I will say it’s not totally surprising, just given the numbers that we’ve seen here with WestJet. And, they’re clearly sending a message (Wednesday) that service to and from Atlantic Canada has been very, very challenging for them.”

Not surprised

Mike MacKinnon, CEO of the J.A. Douglas McCurdy Sydney Airport, was also expecting moves like WestJet’s.

“As an airport, you’re watching the performance of your stakeholder partners and talking to them pretty regularly,” he said. “I can’t say I’m surprised.”

Mike MacKinnon, CEO of the J.A. Douglas McCurdy Sydney Airport. - File Photo
Mike MacKinnon, CEO of the J.A. Douglas McCurdy Sydney Airport. - File Photo


MacKinnon acknowledged the impact of public health restrictions on travel and airports being forced to increase passenger fees to make up for lost revenue does not make it any easier for airlines to survive in these times. Lobbying efforts to reduce restrictions and obtain financial support for the industry has not produced the desired result, he added.

“Here we are seven months downstream, and we’re not seeing anything happen, and the fallout continues,” MacKinnon said. “You’ve got huge numbers of laid-off and eliminated jobs throughout Canada in this industry, and this (announcement) is just going to add to those numbers.”

The Halifax-to-Sydney service would usually run twice daily, but since the middle of July it was down to twice a week. WestJet would also typically introduce a direct Sydney-to-Toronto flight during the peak summer season, but that did not happen in 2020.

In the meantime, Sydney still has direct service to Toronto through Air Canada five days a week. That airline also flies to Halifax on Mondays and Fridays. Both of those routes are operating less frequently compared to pre-pandemic times, MacKinnon added.

Other options

With airports seeing new holes in their schedule, the push is on to find other airlines willing to fill gaps. MacKinnon spoke of PAL Airline’s addition of a Moncton-to-St. John’s direct flight earlier this fall as a promising development and hopes to see similar moves made in the future.

“We’re hopeful that we can have discussions with airlines like (PAL) and any others out there that now may see an opportunity to come into Atlantic Canada and offer some services that previously they may not have considered ... because of the competition with the WestJets and Air Canadas,” he said.

PAL declined to comment on the WestJet announcement when contacted Wednesday.

Meanwhile, the difficulties facing larger airlines could make things easier for smaller operations. David Morgan, president and owner of Celtic Air Services, believes business travellers will look to charter services more often. While he is disappointed to see people in the industry losing their jobs, Morgan suspects there will be opportunities for smaller companies like his own, which is still in the process of obtaining regulatory approval to operate out of Port Hawkesbury, Nova Scotia.

“I think that our perspective is this is going to help our charter business and going to push commercial and industrial clients into air charter — which is where we’re planning to begin operations — more than the scheduled network. I think the scheduled air market travel has changed so much in the past eight or nine months. It’s just impossible for somebody to jump in, if you will, because there’s no pool to jump into.”

Both representatives for the Sydney and Charlottetown airports are hopeful once the dust settles they can resume a working relationship with WestJet. Newson reiterated the significance of losing the airline at his airport.

“Certainly, a big impact on the airport,” he said. “But with all of that being said, we certainly hope to welcome WestJet back when the time is right and when things get back to somewhat normal conditions for air travel, whenever that may be, we are certainly expecting they will return to Charlottetown when the time is right.”

— With files from Terrence McEachern


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