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Canada’s two biggest airlines scored below average for customer satisfaction among major North American carriers, according to a new survey, part of a trend of growing passenger frustration across the industry.

Conducted by J.D. Power, the poll found Air Canada AC-T and WestJet fell below the average customer satisfaction figure of 782 on a 1,000-point scale for economy class service. WestJet notched 777 to edge out Air Canada, which scored 765.

Pricier fares, crowded planes and fewer flight options are behind the frustration – but demand remains strong nonetheless – said Michael Taylor, managing director of travel, hospitality and retail at the Michigan-based consumer analytics company.

As a result, carriers yielded higher revenues this year after a prolonged industry slump prompted by the pandemic. Taylor said many are running at “peak efficiency,” though higher labour and fuel costs compared with 2019 have hampered profit margins, and capacity has not yet reached pre-pandemic levels.

A global pilot shortage has fostered problems in North America, partly explaining why fewer planes ply the skies compared with four years ago.

Some airlines have ditched smaller planes, trying to pack in as many passengers as possible per flight as they slim down their schedules.

“They’re more full – they have a higher load factor – and that usually decreases satisfaction,” Taylor said.

Meanwhile, the surge in leisure travel after two years under border restrictions and COVID-19 health concerns has pushed prices north.

“Because of that high demand, ticket prices are significantly higher, and they’ve been going higher for the past two, two-and-a-half years or so. For the vast majority of travellers, that’s the key factor in satisfaction,” he said.

That discontent is quantifiable in ways other than surveys. The complaints backlog at the Canadian Transportation Agency stood at about 45,000 as of late April, more than triple the tally from a year earlier and requiring at least 18 months on average per case. Many cases revolve around compensation claims after flight delays or cancellations.

The drawn-out uproar prompted the federal government to table an overhaul to Canada’s passenger rights charter last month in an effort to tighten compensation loopholes and toughen penalties.

While a spate of upstart airlines has made domestic air travel cheaper than ever overall in Canada – particularly in the busiest corridors – passengers face higher prices and scarcer trip options in many regions and on international routes, according to figures from aviation data firm Cirium.

“You want to fly to, say, Winnipeg, it might be a little more expensive, because it’s not the most popular destination versus, say, getting to Toronto,” Taylor said.

The sparser flight boards at many airports also stem from a de facto division of the country by the two main players: Air Canada and WestJet, which share roughly 80 per cent of the domestic market.

Since last fall, Calgary-based WestJet has cut routes in Ontario, Quebec and Atlantic Canada to refocus on its home turf out west. It has also cut flights on some more heavily travelled corridors, including roughly four out of five trips between Toronto and Montreal compared to 2019 levels, Cirium data shows.

Montreal-based Air Canada has mirrored this move, remaining in Central and Eastern Canada while scaling back in the west. It also scrapped 26 regional routes east of Winnipeg in June 2020, with only two resuming since.

The survey Wednesday ranked airlines in three separate categories: first class and business class, premium economy, and economy and basic economy. In the first two groups, Air Canada placed fifth of six.

For economy – encompassing the vast majority of passengers – WestJet ranked fifth and Air Canada came eighth out of 11. Neither airline immediately responded to a request for comment.

Southwest Airlines, Delta Air Lines and JetBlue Airways snagged the top three spots – despite a meltdown at Southwest that caused of thousands of December flight cancellations in what U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg called a “system failure.” American Airlines, Spirit Airlines and Frontier Airlines took up the rear.

JetBlue and Delta came in first and second respectively for business class, and swapped spots for premium economy. United Airlines finished last for business class, and American Airlines did the same for premium economy.

The survey, carried out between March 2022 and March 2023, is based on responses from 7,774 passengers at scores of airports who flew on large North American airlines.

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