Canadian airline fares decline but added fees keep going up

It may come as a shock, but Canadian airfares have actually dropped in price. So why does flying still seem so pricey? Chances are it's those pesky added fees that keep creeping up.

As Canadians demand bargain fares, airlines to generate revenue wherever they can

Ticket prices are down so why does the cost of flying seem so high? (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

It may come as a shock, but Canadian airfares have actually dropped in price.

According to Statistics Canada's latest numbers, domestic and international base fares combined averaged $248.70 in the third quarter of 2015, down 1.7% from the same period in 2014.

This marks the second consecutive year-over-year quarterly decline in airline fares.

The numbers were based on flights offered by Air Canada, WestJet and Air Transat.

Numbers don't lie so why does flying still seem so pricey to so many Canadians? Chances are it's those pesky add-ons — everything from airport improvement fees to the bill for checking your bag.

"I'm paying more and more," says Pat Renahan, on her way to Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport to catch a flight to Moncton. "It's really twice the price when you put in the taxes and [fees]."

And as Canadians clamour for the lowest fare possible, some of those added charges keep going up.

"The carriers have sliced and diced their product up every which way they can," says Calgary-based aviation consultant Rick Erickson.

The dreaded baggage fee

Remember the old days when your first checked bag was free?

WestJet has gotten to the point where it charges the fee for all economy trips, including international. Other major Canadian carriers are getting close.

All charge at least $25 for the first checked bag for economy fares on domestic and U.S. flights. Air Canada also requires the fee for sun destinations like the Caribbean.

Air Transat will be adding that charge come November.

The carrier says it's introducing the fee "to simplify our baggage policy."

This year, Porter Airlines upped its first checked bag fee from $25 to $27.50 for most fares. The airline is also now charging an extra $10 for passengers who don't pay up until they arrive at the airport.
Pat Renahan at Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport. She believes she shouldn't have to pay for her first checked bag. (CBC)

Porters' "ancillary fees are very competitive and passengers benefit from lower ticket prices," said company spokeswoman Robyn Vanteunenbroek in an email to CBC News.

"We have not received any negative feedback," she added about the hike in fees.

But Porter passenger, Renahan is not happy about the charge. She paid in advance to check her suitcase and says with taxes the total was $31. 

"I think it's ridiculous. I'm going away for six weeks. I can't go with a carry-on."

Bigger baggage fees to come?

Porter was the first Canadian airline to introduce the $25 checked bag fee for domestic flights back in May 2014. All other major carriers soon followed in some fashion.

Analyst Erickson predicts that other airlines will also soon follow once again by hiking luggage fees.

He points out that NewLeaf Travel based in Winnipeg has come out of the gate with high baggage charges. The Winnipeg company is offering ultra-low fares to many Canadian cities and is supposed to start flying later this month.

Like some U.S. discount airlines, NewLeaf charges for carry-on bags — anywhere from $31.50 to a whopping $92.00 at the gate.

"NewLeaf would prefer if passengers checked their bags," said spokeswoman Julie Rempel in an email to CBC News. She explains it speeds up boarding time and that "greater efficiency at the gate allows us to maintain our low fares." 

However, NewLeaf passengers also have to pay up for checked luggage — from $26.25 online to as high as $80.50 at the gate.

No dinner for you

There are numerous other fees for flyers — everything from seat selection to pillows and headphones on some carriers.

While some add-ons can be considered luxuries, many would argue a complimentary meal on an international flight is a necessity.

Not according to WestJet which is charging for all meals on its service to London, England. For Vancouver passengers, that's a 9.5 hour flight.
WestJet's website recommends that Europe-bound passengers pre-purchase their meals. There are no complimentary meals served on board. (WestJet)

The move has sparked a backlash. "And how much is it to use the washroom?" a reader wondered while commenting on a CBC News story about the issue.

But someone else pointed out that "if we want cheap flights, then it's user-pay."

Indeed, WestJet's flights to London can go as low as $250 for a one-way ticket from Toronto.

"Our guests have always told us that they do not want to pay for things they do not need or want, and that includes expensive meals," said spokesman Robert Palmer to CBC News in May, soon after WestJet launched the service.

And like all other new and surprising fees, Erickson predicts WestJet's no free meals on international flights may spark a trend. "I suspect it's here to stay and we'll probably see the charter guys that will start doing this next."

As long as Canadians continue to demand bargain fares says Erickson, airlines will continue to look for new ways to generate revenue.

"Those fees are here and there's absolutely no rollback on anybody's books coming," he predicted.

So what's next? How about a second checked bag fee? Recently, British Airways and American Airlines and their affiliates started charging an extra transfer fee for checked luggage when a flight is booked with two separate tickets.


Sophia Harris

Business reporter

Based in Toronto, Sophia Harris covers consumer and business for CBC News web, radio and TV. She previously worked as a CBC videojournalist in the Maritimes where she won an Atlantic Journalism Award for her work. Contact: