It may be too early to call this a golden age for international airline travel for Canadians, but the country's two largest airlines are adding destinations around the globe, while European and Asian airlines are boosting their flights here or starting service to Canada.
Air Canada, which has been boosting flights around the world regularly, will announce Thursday that non-stop flights between Toronto and Seoul will begin next June. Flights to Delhi and Dubai begin next week as part of a major international expansion by Canada's largest carrier.
The Air Canada expansions, along with plans by its major domestic rival WestJet Airlines Ltd. to add Toronto-London service next year while also examining other European cities, comes at the same time as new service is being offered by several China-based airlines to Vancouver and Toronto and a 13-per-cent increase in flights to Canada by Air France and KLM.
"International travel is growing at a faster rate than domestic travel – at least in Canada," Ben Smith, Air Canada's president of passenger airlines, said in an interview Wednesday.
It's expanding because of the growth of multicultural communities in Canada, changing demographics and new, more efficient planes that allow airlines to turn profits on routes that were once money-losers, said Robert Kokonis, president of Toronto-based airline consulting firm AirTrav Inc.
The number of people travelling to and from Canadian destinations by air to international destinations other than those in the United States grew by an average of 11 per cent a month during the May-through-August period this year, a key part of the prime international travel season.
The influx of immigrants from China and India in recent years has led to the addition of new routes between those countries and Canadian cities, Mr. Kokonis said.
The leisure market has also changed, he noted, as Canadians age and become more affluent.
"They're branching out and they're looking for new experiences, they're not just going to fly to Main Street Europe – which is London, Paris, Frankfurt, maybe – they're willing to branch out a little bit beyond that," he said.
Mr. Smith points to several factors that are driving the airline's international growth. Among them are: the creation of its low-cost Rouge airline, which allows it to be competitive on leisure routes where low-cost and charter competitors could offer cheaper fares; improved facilities at airports that allow for seamless connections; and Air Canada's purchase of Boeing 787 airplanes.
The Toronto-Seoul route is an example of a route that has become viable again for the airline because of the 787, he said.
"Seoul is a route that we flew seasonally a couple of years ago. The [Boeing] 777 was a bit big for that route for us. The 787 is a perfect size."
Air Canada is also trying to increase what is known as sixth freedom traffic. That strategy involves encouraging mainly Americans flying overseas to connect internationally through Toronto, using Air Canada, rather than through U.S. hubs.
"We have all the key elements in place necessary to capture this traffic," Mr. Smith said. "All the air routes that go to Europe or Asia fly right over Canada anyway."
The airline said in a presentation earlier this fall that its goal is to grab 1.5 per cent of such traffic, about double the 0.8 per cent it has now. Having 1.5 per cent of these travellers would generate an additional $605-million in annual revenue.
WestJet will assess the success of its first year of flying wide-body planes across the Atlantic Ocean to London before it decides where to expand next internationally, Bob Cummings, executive vice-president, commercial, said Wednesday from Calgary.
Those flights on leased Boeing 767s will begin next May.
"Job one for us is to make year one successful from a guest, operations and financial perspective," Mr. Cummings said.
WestJet has analyzed 70 other routes around the world to see which ones make sense, he added.
"We wouldn't have gotten into the [international] market if we didn't believe that we will be successful and grow longer term, so we are going in with that assumption," he said.
Among the destinations being considered are more cities in Europe plus the possibility of expanding the airline's winter Hawaii flights to Fiji, Tahiti or other South Pacific destinations.