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Air Canada in 2022 will offer about 75 per cent of its 2019 capacity, measured in available seat miles, as sales rise to customers visiting family and friends and taking holidays.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

Canada’s airlines are betting Canadians will return to the skies by the summer, hiring hundreds of employees, redeploying aircraft and restoring routes cancelled in the pandemic.

However, a recovery from the industry’s collapse is at least two years away, Lucie Guillemette, Air Canada’s AC-T chief commercial officer, said amid uncertainty over the trajectories of the pandemic and travel restrictions, soaring fuel prices and Russia’s war on Ukraine.

Montreal-based Air Canada in 2022 will offer about 75 per cent of its 2019 capacity, measured in available seat miles, as sales rise to customers visiting family and friends and taking holidays. The once-lucrative business-travel market will recover more slowly, Ms. Guillemette said at Air Canada’s annual investor presentation on Wednesday.

“We project to be close to full recovery by 2024,” she said.

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Calgary-based WestJet Airlines Ltd. will fly 94 per cent of its prepandemic schedule, including 43 domestic and 23 U.S. routes. WestJet, which laid off 10,000 of its 14,000 employees in the pandemic, will have more than 9,000 on staff by July.

“The restoration of our network in time for summer is a major and needed milestone as we respond to strong demand for travel and strengthen critical connections to global hubs and business economies,” said Denise Kenny, a spokeswoman for WestJet, in an e-mail.

Ms. Kenny said the airline does not have an outlook on the recovery in ticket sales, but “in light of the Canadian government easing testing requirements for fully vaccinated travellers, we have seen a strong uptick in both near-term and future travel bookings as Canadian and international visitors make plans to return to travel this summer.”

WestJet is owned by Onex Corp. and does not release financial results.

Air Canada on Wednesday offered investors short- and longer-term financial outlooks. For 2022, Air Canada said costs per seat-mile will rise by 13 to 15 per cent over those of 2019.

Profit margin, measured before interest, taxes and other items, is forecast to range from 8 to 11 per cent. For 2024, profit margin will climb to 19 per cent of operating revenue.

“While these guidance numbers are below 2019 levels, they represent a strong first step to recovery,” said Amos Kazzaz, Air Canada’s finance chief.

Mr. Kazzaz said rising fuel prices – Air Canada’s biggest expense – pose a risk to the projections but strong seat sales show “a portion” of the higher costs can be passed along to customers in the form of higher airfares.

Mr. Kazzaz said Air Canada’s move to get rid of 79 older planes and add more fuel-efficient models, including the Airbus A321 and Boeing 737 Max, will allow the airline to keep expenses lower. He also pointed to $1-billion in permanent cost reduction made in the past two years. “We are coming out of the pandemic in a good place,” he said.

Stock analysts said Air Canada’s forecasts presented a mixed picture, with targets missing, exceeding and meeting their outlooks.

“However, on an absolute basis, [Air Canada’s] financial targets clearly suggest that the airline is positioning to return to its strong pre-pandemic state,” said Konark Gupta, a Bank of Nova Scotia stock analyst, in a note to clients.

Air Canada’s share price was down around 1 per cent in Wednesday afternoon trading to $24.40, about half of where it traded before the pandemic.

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