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An airplane takes off from Billy Bishop Airport on Oct. 6. The typical return ticket within Canada rose by almost $100 over two years to $532 before taxes, according to data provided by British-based aviation consultancy Cirium.CARLOS OSORIO/Reuters

Canadians returning to air travel are facing more than vaccine checks and longer waits to board – they are paying more for their seats.

The average price for a domestic round-trip plane ticket in July, 2021, rose by 21 per cent compared with the same month in 2019, long before the COVID-19 pandemic halted most air travel and sent the industry into a deep financial crisis.

The typical return ticket within Canada rose by almost $100 over two years to $532 before taxes, according to data provided by British-based aviation consultancy Cirium.

A return ticket on the Toronto-New York route rose by a similar amount in the period, while Calgary-Vancouver seats cost 16 per cent more, according to Cirium, which analyzes all classes of fares from domestic and foreign commercial airlines from several sources.

The prices are increasing as vaccinated Canadians enjoy a wider array of destinations and routes a year and a half after the pandemic grounded almost all air travel.

Airlines that posted deep losses while shut down are restarting amid soaring fuel prices, and are saddled with higher per-seat costs associated with the smaller aircraft they have deployed.

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Air Canada, for instance, used to fly to New York from Toronto with Airbus A320s, which seat about 150. In July, the airline flew the route with Embraer E175s, which seat about 80 people but require the same number of pilots and bear similar landing fees and other expenses.

Cirium’s July pricing data, the most recent available, covers the period in which Air Canada, WestJet Airlines Ltd. and Flair Airlines were flying a small number of fights. Porter Airlines was grounded until early September and Air Transat restarted in late July. The land border with the United States was closed, making air travel the only option for those who wanted to go south.

Peter Fitzpatrick, a spokesman for Air Canada, said the carrier generally does not talk about its pricing strategy. “Airfares fluctuate all the time,” Mr. Fitzpatrick said. “This can be due to competition, market conditions, seasonality, supply and demand, costs and other factors. As well, as we emerge from the pandemic, all carriers are in the process of rebuilding their networks so for a network carrier like Air Canada, direct comparables with prepandemic conditions at this time are not always valid because our network is greatly changed from 2019.”

Cameron Doerksen, a stock analyst at National Bank Financial, said airfares have come down in recent days as competition intensifies because of the resumption and expansion of airlines, particularly on short routes in Western Canada and transcontinental flights. He cited two possible explanations: the weak fall travel period and the expansion of discount carrier Flair.

Longer term, fleet expansions announced by Porter Airlines, Flair and Canada Jetlines will boost the number of available seats by 20,000, or about 21 per cent. “The proposed capacity expansions would be a dramatic increase in competitive capacity that has the potential to lead to a prolonged period of lower air fares for all industry players.”

Cirium’s data showed an average return fare between Toronto and New York airports in July cost $423 before tax. This is roughly in line with economy fares Air Canada charges for flights to LaGuardia Airport in October and early November, according to the carrier’s website.

A Calgary-Vancouver return fare in July, 2021, cost an average of $396 before taxes. The same WestJet fare for a weekend in late October costs $407 to $1,054, including fees and taxes. Flair Airlines charges $240 for the same fare, including taxes. (Flair charges $59 for every carry-on bag and $79 per checked bag; WestJet’s lower-cost fares charge at least $30 for a checked bag.)

Jacques Roy, a transportation business professor at HEC Montréal, cautioned it can be difficult to gauge fare inflation, given the way airlines market and price seats. But he said higher fares are a signal airlines are trying to return to profitability after a pandemic halted flights for several months, caused thousands of layoffs and deep financial losses.

Prof. Roy said positive signs for the airline industry include the pent-up demand for travel heading into winter and the profit posted by U.S. carrier Delta Airlines. Delta said it made a profit of US$194-million for the third quarter, excluding US$1.3-billion in government aid.

But the carrier said higher fuel prices threaten to undermine its profits in the coming quarters. Fuel costs have increased by about 60 per cent this year, driven by soaring oil prices.

Air Canada will offer a look at its financial health on Nov. 2, when it reports quarterly results. In the third quarter of 2020, the Montreal-based airline lost $685-million as the number of passengers fell by 88 per cent from the same period a year earlier.

Prof. Roy expects domestic carriers could see better times by the third quarter of next year. “I expect things to improve,” he said. “Maybe not as much as we were in 2019. I am part of those who think things will recover faster than expected.”

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