Business

WestJet shuts down most of its operations in Atlantic Canada

WestJet will soon no longer fly to Moncton, Fredericton, Sydney, Charlottetown and Quebec City and drastically cut back its service to St. John's and Halifax.

Airline halts all flights in and out of Moncton, Fredericton, Sydney, Charlottetown and Quebec City

After the cuts, WestJet's service in Atlantic Canada will go from 28 routes to just three, all out of Halifax. (Darryl Dyck/Bloomberg)

WestJet will soon no longer fly to Moncton, Fredericton, Sydney, Charlottetown and Quebec City and drastically cut back its service to St. John's and Halifax.

The Calgary-based airline said Wednesday it is eliminating 100 flights, which represent about 80 per cent of the airline's service in and out of Atlantic Canada. The airline also says it is also suspending operations to Quebec City, by removing its flight between there and Toronto.

The route cancellations mean that the airline will also shutter its operations in the airports of Charlottetown, Moncton, Fredericton and Sydney. 

The routes will be cancelled as of Nov. 2.

"It has become increasingly unviable to serve these markets," CEO Ed Sims said. "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."

The decision will put 29 employees on temporary layoff, including:

  • Five in Sydney.
  • Eight in Fredericton.
  • Eight in Moncton.
  • Eight in Charlottetown.

The moves mean that the entirety of WestJet's service to Atlantic Canada will now be based out of Halifax, with daily flights to Toronto, Calgary and St. John's at least once a day. This time last year, the airline flew 28 different flight routes across the region. As of next month, they will have just three. Except for the Halifax to St. John's flight, no other Canadian city east of Montreal will have a WestJet flight coming in or out of it for the foreseeable future.

WestJet says customers with tickets on now-cancelled flights are entitled to travel credits for their cancelled flights, but not a refund, which the airline notes the Canadian Transportation Agency has deemed acceptable given the realities of COVID-19.

"We fully anticipate returning to the region when the situation improves and will extend the travel credit expiry date beyond the current 24-month window should it be required," WestJet spokesperson Morgan Bell told CBC News.

The company says that on top of the cuts in Atlantic Canada, about 100 corporate jobs, mostly based at the airline's Calgary headquarters, will also be cut.

Pandemic walloped demand

The changes come amid the coronavirus pandemic, which has walloped demand for air travel. WestJet typically has about two million paying customers a month on its flights, but since the pandemic began in March, it has only sold about 1 million tickets, total.

WestJet spokesperson Richard Bartrem blamed COVID-19 for a huge drop in demand for air travel, which forced the airline to make drastic cuts to service. 0:33

WestJet was taken private by Onex in a $5 billion buyout last year, so the airline's finances are no longer public. But we do know that other airlines have had their balance sheets obliterated by the pandemic.

In its last financial statement in July, WestJet's biggest rival, Air Canada, revealed it burned through between $15 and $17 million a day through April, May and June.

Earlier this summer, Air Canada also cancelled 30 routes, the plurality of which were in Atlantic Canada.

They also come after previously announced moves by WestJet to lay off 3,333 people across the country, and a deal with pilots to agree to a 50 per cent pay cut instead of even more layoffs.

"We understand this news will be devastating to the communities, our airport partners and the WestJetters who rely on our service," Sims said. "While we remain committed to the Atlantic region, it's impossible to say when there will be a return to service without support for a co-ordinated domestic approach. Our intent is to return as soon as it becomes economically viable to do so."

Monette Pasher, executive director of the Atlantic Canada Airports Association, used the same word to describe the news: "devastating."

WestJet has laid off staff and cut back its service in response to the coronavirus. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

She's calling on governments to financially help the industry survive the pandemic, calling it an "essential service," moving essential workers and cargo "and getting Canadians home."

Despite doling out hundreds of billions of dollars in coronavirus relief packages, the federal government thus far has not come out with an aid package targeted at the aviation industry, and Pasher said, "The time has come to support our sector."

Airports in Atlantic Canada are poised to lose $76 million this year, she said.

"We are worried about our communities on the other side of this [and we are] starting to worry if we are going to have air service."

John Gradek, co-ordinator of the aviation management program at McGill University, says it isn't necessarily the case that people in those places should expect to be completely shut out of air travel in and out of the region.

"There will be a new way of serving Canada's regional markets that will depend on regional carriers rather than national ones," he said in an interview. 

After Air Canada's cuts in June, a number of regional players stepped up to add flights to fill the gap. "They're smaller airplanes, but more frequent services," Gradek said. "I think you'll see the same things happen."

Ultimately, he was not surprised by the move, nor does he place any blame on the company for it.

"There isn't demand," he said. "People just are not flying."

With files from The Canadian Press and the CBC's Meegan Read

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