Nfld. & Labrador

WestJet leaving Gander in the cold, blaming slow winter sales for service reduction

At the end of October, WestJet will offer only seasonal flights from Gander to Halifax, meaning there will be no direct flights over the winter.

Flights will stop Oct. 26 and resume in the summer of 2020

WestJet will stop flying out of Gander International Airport in late October, and will return to seasonal flights in the summer of 2020. (WestJet/Facebook)

It was only three years ago that WestJet announced it would be bringing service back to Gander.

The airline company had not operated out of the central Newfoundland airport for almost a decade to that point.

But now the plan is to scale back operations out of Gander International, leaving travellers wondering why. 

"It's certainly a substantial reduction in capacity and disappointing news, of course," Reg Wright, CEO of the Gander Airport Authority, told CBC Newfoundland Morning.

"Not entirely unforeseen, but disappointing nonetheless."

The economy is still pretty tepid, and airports and passenger traffic are really good barometers for how the economy is doing.- Reg Wright

At the end of October WestJet will move to seasonal flights only from Gander to Halifax, meaning there will be no direct flights to Halifax out of Gander over the winter.

In a statement to CBC News the airline company said Oct. 26 will be the last day it will operate daily flights from Gander to Halifax, and will resume seasonal service in the summer of 2020.

As of now 180 travellers have flights booked after the October deadline.

"We recognize that these changes are disappointing news for the community and apologize to our impacted guests. We are in the process of contacting the 180 guests affected to let them know of these changes and to provide further options, including reaccommodation or refunds," WestJet's statement said.

Wright said he assumed business changes were coming, but figured the scaleback would have occurred last year instead, citing a similar scenario at Deer Lake Regional Airport. 

Reg Wright, CEO of the Gander International Airport Authority, says he had been expecting the changes to WestJet's service for almost a year. (Gander International Airport Authority)

By following flight performances with the tenant airlines at Gander International Airport, Wright could track slow and busy travelling periods.

While summer months have strong performance numbers, Wright said, it was the winter months that fell well below projected sales, further than anyone on his side of the desk had expected.

Economic downturn

"I think it's completely a product of where our economy is at this juncture. The economy is still pretty tepid, and airports and passenger traffic are really good barometers for how the economy is doing," Wright said. 

"So if you look around, the four most prolific airports, certainly in Newfoundland and Labrador, were all down last year. If you look at dealership sales, they're down. If you look at inbound sea freight, it's down. If you talk to retailers, that's down."

Wright said he's trying to remain positive and he understands that travelling to and from Newfoundland is highly seasonal to begin with. 

"The bottom line is this: WestJet will have the same great product in market between May and October, and that's great, that's when people are moving, he said.

"It's those dog days when the snow settles on the ground in November, and if you get into January and February where Santa's got most of everyone's disposable income, it's not as profitable."

Gander International Airport has four tenant airlines. (Gander International Airport Authority )

WestJet confirmed in its statement to CBC News that winter is a difficult season for profit.

"This difficult decision was made as WestJet continued to see challenges to our winter service from both an operations and load factor perspective. We remain focused on ensuring that our aircraft are deployed in the best interest of our 25 million guests, while operating profitably and supporting the growth of our hubs," the company said.

'Like running a mall'

Gander International Airport has four tenant airlines conducting business in its airspace. Air Canada, WestJet, PAL Airlines and Sunwing Airlines share a piece of the consumer action. 

Wright said it's important to offer a variety of airlines to travel with to the public, but each airline still needs to meet its own sales figures. 

"Running the airport is a bit like running a mall. You want lots of choice, but at day's end you know that all your tenants have to be profitable, and that's the very essence there," he said. 

"Airlines exist to make money for owners and shareholders, and where they don't they have to take remedial action."

Wright said he found out about the change a week ago and has been working on finding a replacement, but nothing is set in stone yet. 

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from CBC Newfoundland Morning

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