Expect to see more WestJet planes arriving at and departing from Winnipeg.
The Calgary-based airline is preparing to resume near pre-pandemic service levels, WestJet announced Monday. Flights in Winnipeg should reach 91 per cent of 2019 activity this summer, according to chief commercial officer John Weatherill.
Regular services will hit 84 per cent of pre-COVID levels across WestJet’s network, Weatherill told the Free Press after a news conference at the Winnipeg Richardson International Airport.
“We expect there will continue to be new variants that will emerge, and we expect there will continue to be ups and downs in recovery,” Weatherill said. “But we think, generally, the trend towards recovery has now taken hold.”
At its slowest, WestJet sent out 40 flights daily — a fraction of its pre-pandemic average of over 700 flights per day.
“We suspended service to many critical destinations,” Weatherill said during the news conference. “The past two years have been incredibly challenging for our business.”
The airline’s goal is to double current weekly departures — from today’s 76 to almost 170 — by August, he said.
WestJet’s summer schedule highlights nonstop flights from Winnipeg to 14 destinations, including Halifax, Ottawa, Kelowna and Las Vegas. There will be six daily flights from Winnipeg to Calgary, WestJet’s global hub. Another five will fly daily to Toronto, and three daily to Vancouver.
The airline — which includes WestJet, WestJet Encore and Swoop — will increase flights to Regina, Saskatoon and Thunder Bay, Weatherill said.
The announcement marks a “light… at the end of the tunnel,” according to Nick Hays, the Winnipeg Airports Authority’s CEO.
“It’s definitely good news,” he said. “We’re certainly seeing, this summer and beyond, a really robust uptick (in travel plans). It’s absolutely going in the right direction, and I’m hopeful to see more of the same.”
The skyrocketing cost of oil will likely hike plane ticket prices.
“Fuel is a significant cost for any airline, and we’re not excluded from that,” Weatherill said. “We are evaluating and monitoring what that means for the long-term.”
WestJet isn’t yet compensating for fuel prices through added fees, but a surcharge isn’t off the table, Weatherill said Monday.
“I think peak summer is going to be a little more expensive, so I’d encourage anyone who’s thinking of travelling this summer to book earlier rather than later,” he said, noting both fuel and demand play a role.
More flights into Winnipeg is crucial for the province’s hard-hit tourism sector, said Linda Whitfield, Travel Manitoba’s vice-president of communications and stakeholder engagement.
The industry was on the path to $2.2 billion in annual revenues by 2022 before COVID-19 interfered, Whitfield said. Now, a tourism strategy team including Travel Manitoba, the province and Manitoba Chambers of Commerce aims to grow visitor spending to $2.5 billion by 2030.
“WestJet’s return to a pre-pandemic number of flights is welcome news in our efforts to reach our strategy’s targets,” Whitfield said.
Removing federal public health measures, like a required COVID-19 test before re-entering Canada, is a priority for the air travel industry to resume normal operations.
‘Our view is that the science supports that (the tests) can be removed, particularly in an industry where everyone working in travelling is fully vaccinated,” Weatherill said.
The Winnipeg Airports Authority sang a similar tune last week.
“Testing remains an impediment to getting people moving again,” Tyler MacAfee, vice-president of communications with the authority, wrote in an email. “We have seen an increase in travel each time restrictions were lessened.”
WestJet is also preparing for a wider range of flights from Winnipeg, should its proposed acquisition of Sunwing be accepted.
On March 2, Westjet announced its intention to take over the warm weather brand. Transport Canada and the competition commissioner must both review the deal and report their findings to the transport minister, who makes the final decision.
“We believe there will be lots of opportunity for us to offer increased service,” Weatherill said.
It could mean more jobs for Manitobans, he added. Sunwing jets — which are registered in Europe — are worked by European pilots, flight attendants and technicians. Canadians could take those positions, Weatherill said Monday.
The airline is struggling to hire people as it ramps up operations.
“I think that’s one of the things that surprised us, was how difficult it’d be to bring back frontline workers,” Weatherill said. “That’s why we’re building back gradually over time rather than in a big jump.”
The company has 2,300 staff in Manitoba, he said. It currently employs 8,490 workers overall, down from roughly 14,000 in 2019, according to The Canadian Press.
WestJet generates $63 million in tourism spending to Manitoba annually and outputs half a billion dollars in the economy, Weatherill said.
“Air connectivity is the foundation to Manitoba’s long-term recovery,” said Premier Heather Stefanson, who attended the Monday news conference. “It is key to drive business, investment and tourism.”
Gabby is a big fan of people, writing and learning. She graduated from Red River College’s Creative Communications program in the spring of 2020.