WestJet suspends Ottawa-Halifax flights as part of Atlantic Canada service cuts

WestJet plane

WestJet Airlines is grounding flights between Ottawa and Halifax as part of a wider move to reduce its service to Atlantic Canada as the pandemic continues to take a toll on the airline industry.

WestJet said Wednesday it will indefinitely halt all service to Fredericton, Moncton, N.B., Sydney, N.S., and Charlottetown, while “dramatically” paring down service to Halifax and St. John's, N.L.

The airline ​– which had already reduced the frequency of flights between Ottawa and the Nova Scotia city from once daily to twice weekly during the pandemic ​– announced it was putting its YOW-Halifax connection on hold indefinitely as part of the service cuts. 

The Calgary-based carrier is also suspending operations between Toronto and Quebec City.

The cuts eliminate more than 100 flights weekly starting Nov. 2, and remove nearly 80 per cent of WestJet's seat capacity from the Atlantic region, the company said.

“The lack of travel demand combined with domestic quarantines means that sadly we can no longer maintain our full Canadian network of service,” CEO Ed Sims said in a video post.

“Since the pandemic's beginning, we have worked to keep essential air service to all of our domestic airports, but we are out of runway and have been forced to suspend service in the region without sector-specific support.”

WestJet’s announcement comes a day after Toronto-based Porter Airlines said it was pushing its planned return to the skies back from Nov. 12 to Dec. 15. Porter stopped flying on March 21 as travel restrictions due to the pandemic ramped up and caused a sharp drop in demand.

“The flare up of COVID-19 cases in certain markets during the last month dampened any expectation of changes to government restrictions that will enable us to begin flying again in November,” Porter president and CEO Michael Deluce said in a statement.

WestJet, which Onex Corp. acquired for $3.5 billion in December, also said Wednesday it will lay off 100 corporate and operational support employees, on top of the 4,000 workers it has laid off since March.

The cuts do not include airport staff from the affected Atlantic airports due to an earlier restructuring.

In 2019, WestJet flew more than two million passengers per month on average. Since the onset of COVID-19 in March, it has flown a total of just over one million passengers, or about seven per cent of the number it would typically transport during that time.

Hefty fee hikes

More than 70 per cent of the carrier's fleet remains grounded, incurring maintenance and storage costs without drawing revenue.

Hefty fee increases at a number of airports, including five that WestJet serves in Atlantic Canada, have added to the challenge facing large airlines.

Nav Canada, which runs the country's air navigation system, hiked its rates by 30 per cent, prompting WestJet to raise its surcharges on domestic flights by between $4 and $7 per passenger.

“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 right now,” Sims said.

WestJet follows its larger rival in stepping back from regional operations. Air Canada announced in June it would suspend service on 30 regional routes, mainly affecting travellers to and from the Maritimes, Quebec and Saskatchewan.

Smaller players such as Newfoundland-based PAL Airlines and Quebec-based Pascan Aviation have stepped in to fill the gap. 

“And undoubtedly this will be the case with the resulting WestJet cuts,” said John Gradek, who heads McGill University's Global Aviation Leadership program.

“I think you're going to get as much choice if not more choice by regional carriers.”

The regional companies' smaller planes have lower fuel costs. The companies are also charged lower landing fees, putting them in a better position to meet the current level of demand for air travel in regional markets amid the pandemic.

“WestJet was only carrying about 20 to 30 passengers a day on a (76-seat) Q400, which is impossible to make money. But 20 or 30 passengers on a Beechcraft airplane, which is what Provincial Airlines would fly, they'll be doing very well,” Gradek said.

Regions in Western Canada could be “next on the hit parade in terms of markets that will transfer from national carrier to regional carrier,” he added.

Meanwhile, the loss of WestJet’s Halifax route adds more sting to what’s been a tough year for YOW. 

Ottawa airport authority CEO Mark Laroche told OBJ earlier this year the terminal expects only about 2.5 million passengers to pass through its gates in 2020, down from its original forecast of 5.2 million before COVID-19 hit.  

Laroche said it could be three to five years before passenger volumes at YOW return to pre-pandemic levels, adding the non-profit facility will likely have to hike levies such as airport improvement, terminal and landing fees – which account for more than two-thirds of its revenues – to help make up the difference.

​– With additional reporting from OBJ staff