WestJet announces return to Atlantic Canadian airports following COVID suspension

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WATCH: Months after some airlines suspended operations in Atlantic Canada, one air carrier plans to resume flights. But with the renewed optimism, there is concern over how long it will take to get back to pre-pandemic levels. Alicia Draus has our top story – Mar 24, 2021

WestJet announced on Wednesday it is coming back to Atlantic Canadian airports after a months-long COVID-19 suspension.

Flights will be restored at Charlottetown, Fredericton, Moncton, Sydney and Quebec City airports, in May and June.

“We committed to return to the communities we left, as a result of the pandemic, and we will be restoring flights to these regions in the coming months, of our own volition,” said Ed Sims, President and CEO of WestJet, in a news release.

“These communities have been a crucial factor in our success over our 25 years and it is critical for us to ensure they have access to affordable air service and domestic connectivity to drive their economic recovery,” he added.

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WestJet announces return to Atlantic Canada – Mar 24, 2021

Read more: Trudeau says feds having ‘great discussions’ with airlines on COVID aid package

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A spokesperson for the Halifax International Airport Authority, Tiffany Chase, said they’ve consistently been doing about 90 per cent compared to pre pandemic levels, so on a given day they see 200-300 people departing compared to 5000-6000 per day before the pandemic began.

“We’ve been borrowing consistently in order to keep our doors open,” said Chase.

A province over, things have been equally quiet at the Moncton Airport, which sees lower volumes of air travel to begin with.

“Normally we might have 16 to 20 flight a day by six or seven carriers,” said Bernard LeBlanc, President and CEO of Greater Moncton International Airport.

“Yesterday for instance we had five flights by two carriers.”

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WestJet announces 1,000 job cuts as aviation industry calls on feds to do more – Jan 8, 2021

Then there are airports in Fredericton, New Brunswick and Sydney, Nova Scotia which haven’t had any commercial flights in months.

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WestJet suspended service to the five airports in November 2020, after it said travel to and from the region was reduced by 80 per cent. Flights to these airports will resume beginning June 24 through to June 30.

In addition, flights between St. John’s and Toronto, suspended in October, will resume June 24. Service between St. John’s and Halifax will begin earlier, on May 6.

A full schedule is available here.

READ MORE: Atlantic bubble returning by April 19 as long as COVID-19 numbers remain low 

“Our expectation is that demand will be very high this summer,” said John Weatherill, executive vice-president of WestJet during a virtual press conference Wednesday morning.

“There are a lot of Canadians who for more than a year have been unable to see their friends and family and who want to — we don’t need to convince people to travel.”

For the most part, the reinstated routes will operate once a day, with the exception of Charlottetown to Toronto which is scheduled for 11 flights a week.

“We’ll be monitoring and if demand warrants we’ll certainly increase services to these airports,” said Weatherill.

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‘It’s a major concern,’ experts warn airline industry may not be ready for rush of travelers – Mar 24, 2021

The opposite is true as well. If demand is not there, the routes may not continue.  While Weatherill stated that they are optimistic Atlantic Canada will reopen to the country this summer, so far no Atlantic province has outlined any plans to open beyond the Atlantic bubble which should open by April 19.

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“It really depends on the state of travel restrictions as well as the state of COVID cases across the country as to whether or not those services will be able to operate,” noted Chase.

Despite current restrictions, WestJet is not the only airline planning to gear things up for the summer.

Air Canada has already indicated there will be increased frequencies from Halifax, including service to Toronto, and low-cost carrier Flair has also announced it intended to return to Halifax with flights to Toronto and Ottawa, as well as a new planned route to Waterloo Ontario.

“It’s a bit of hedging their bets in terms of whether or not there will actually be the demand in order for these services to resume,” said Chase.

“But we’re hopeful everyone can work together to ensure a safe restart of this industry.”

A restart though, will be slow going.

READ MORE: WestJet cancels orders for 15 Boeing 737 Max planes as industry struggles

Halifax International Airport used to serve over 40 destinations around the world – currently they’re servicing just four Canadian cities.

“Consumers should be aware that they will not have the same amount of choice when they decide to travel again and it may take a few years for us to provide that choice,” said Chase.

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“We may never get there,” said LeBlanc of getting back to where the Moncton airport was prepandemic. International travel is a particular concern, but LeBlanc says with vaccine rollouts underway there is hope for domestic travel.

“I think domestically we should be able to get back to normal with a few months time,” he said.

In Sydney MacKinnon they’re anxious to get commercial flights back to the area.

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New Brunswickers excited for the return of the Atlantic bubble – Mar 19, 2021

“It’s important for the airport because there’s lots of jobs that have been lost, and we want to see those jobs come back, and we need the revenue,” he said.

“It’s a huge piece of the tourism component, and I know there’s a lot of pent up demand, a lot of leisure travel. A lot of family and friends want to come to Cape Breton and a lot of Cape Bretoners want to travel across our country.

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Similar with other airports, it’s not just WestJet planning a return. MacKinnon says Air Canada has also indicated they plan to return and flights are available to book between Sydney and Halifax, Toronto and Montreal already.

“It all hinges on how the COVID situation plays out over the next few months and what the demand looks like and what travel restrictions remain in place,” said MacKinnon.

“So if you’re hoping to travel or want to travel I’d encourage you to go in and book your flights. Seeing that demand is going to play a big part in indicating to the air carriers that the market is ready to travel.”

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