Canada’s two biggest airlines have cancelled hundreds of flights in September amid a resurgent health crisis that is prolonging the travel industry’s slump.
Air Canada has scrubbed 358 flights from its September schedule, according to aviation and travel data company Cirium, as demand for travel remains weak and the number of COVID-19 cases rises in Canada and other parts of the world. WestJet Airlines Ltd. has cancelled 81 flights as of last Friday, out of a planned 5,077, according to Cirium, which tracks the schedules of more than 930 airlines.
John Gradek, who teaches aviation leadership at McGill University in Montreal, said quarantines, border restrictions and fears of becoming sick are depressing demand for air travel. “Nobody’s booking. That’s what’s happening,” Mr. Gradek said.
Airline capacity fell by about 90 per cent at the onset of the pandemic in March, as governments issued stay-home-advisories and closed borders. Air Canada in June ended service on 30 domestic routes and pulled out of eight regional airports after laying off 20,000 workers and posting a $1-billion quarterly loss. The carrier added flights on some routes for the summer and fall season, and continued an unsuccessful campaign to put pressure on the Canadian government to open its borders and ease the two-week travel quarantine.
Mr. Gradek said the bigger schedule was a calculated risk made by Air Canada’s leaders that by September the pandemic would have eased and people would want to resume flying. “They lost the bet,” Mr. Gradek said. “It’s not just Canada. In the U.S., in Europe, in Asia, there are lots of eats being pulled back because we are still in the middle of a pandemic and people are still afraid to fly.”
To encourage people to resume flying, the carriers offer COVID-19 tests on arrival in Toronto and Vancouver, and point to enhanced cleaning procedures and mandatory face masks.
Air Canada’s September schedule as of last Friday shows 10,111 flights, down from a planned 10,469 a week earlier – a 3-per-cent reduction in seats. Air Canada’s cuts include reducing the number of flights to St. John’s from Toronto to 40 from 49, and Regina-to-Toronto flights are cut to 60 from 70.
Jim Ogden, Cirium’s director of commercial planning services, said the airlines will post lengthy schedules for the following month or two, then cancel and combine flights according to ticket sales.
“They don’t know what demand is,” Mr. Ogden said from Dallas. “You can’t sell it if you don’t have it on the shelf. They’re putting the full schedule out there, seeing if people are buying. ... They don’t like to make cancellations, but they also need to operate cash-positive networks.”
The airlines will face greater cash expenses as a result of the diminished restarts, because they had to recertify pilots and bring planes out of storage. Those costs must still be borne, weighing on the carriers' already strained bank accounts, Mr. Gradek said. The flight crews “are going to be paid, whether they fly or not,” he said.
In August, there were 5,863 flights in Canadian-controlled airspace, down from 11,551 in August, 2019, according to Nav Canada, which runs the country’s air navigation system.
In September, 2019, Air Canada and its subsidiaries flew 47,325 times, while WestJet flew more than 20,000 times.
Toronto Pearson Airport saw average daily takeoffs and landings fall to 336 from 1,366 a year earlier. Vancouver International Airport’s average daily traffic fell to 422 from 1,088, while Calgary’s slumped to 277 from 689, Nav Canada said in a report released on Tuesday.
Air Canada said it publishes seat sales data, including how full the planes are, in its quarterly financial reports. Privately owned WestJet declined to provide sales data, citing competitive reasons.
“We continually adjust our schedule for a variety of reasons, including those related to border restrictions as a result of COVID-19 and also as part of the process of rebuilding our schedule, which was reduced by up to 90 per cent,” said Peter Fitzpatrick, an Air Canada spokesman.
Morgan Bell, a WestJet spokeswoman, said the Calgary-based airline is making frequent changes to its schedule according to customer demands.
“Our industry remains impacted by border closures and restrictions globally and our schedule takes into account where we are seeing demand along with the travel restrictions that are currently in place,” Ms. Bell said. “Guest traffic has dropped in response to virus fears and travel advisories have halted almost all but essential travel during this volatile time.”
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