August 9, 2023 By John Chilibeck, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Daily Gleaner
A reduction of Air Canada flights at the Saint John and Fredericton airports has prompted an official to call upon Canada’s biggest airline to show fairness, arguing Moncton isn’t suffering the same kind of service cut.
Air Canada recently disclosed that after the Labour Day weekend in early September, it will only offer one flight a day from Saint John to Toronto in the afternoon, with no return flight till the next day.
It will also axe one of three daily flights from the Fredericton International Airport to Toronto.
Such reductions are the norm at the region’s airports in the fall, as traditionally people don’t travel as much as they do in the summer. But originally Air Canada had said it would only reduce flights from Saint John to Toronto from three to two flights, and to Montreal from two flights to one a day in the off-season.
What really bums Sandy Ross, the Saint John Airport CEO, is the loss of a same-day return flight to Hog Town. This hampers business travel and people who want quick connections through the Port City.
The Greater Moncton Romeo LeBlanc International Airport, a 90-minute drive away from Saint John and only a little farther from Fredericton, will not see a reduction in Air Canada service this September.
“Air Canada needs to be focusing on New Brunswick for what it is — three cities,” Ross said. “These cuts are over-indexing to YSJ and Fredericton, and I wish no ill-will to Moncton, but I think the travelling public in Saint John are being asked to shoulder an inordinate amount of the inconvenience of Air Canada’s problems. And I don’t think that’s fair to the Saint John travelling public.”
Kate O’Rourke, a spokeswoman for the Fredericton International Airport, said she doesn’t share Ross’s view, as her airport maintains plenty of other flights to Toronto and still has same day service, even with the loss of one Air Canada flight. Capacity has reached 92 per cent of pre-pandemic levels at YFC, with larger aircraft landing and taking off from the Lincoln facility and new routes being added, such as ultra low-cost carrier Lynx Air, offering flights to Toronto, then Calgary.
Ross said the one saving grace is the flights to and from Saint John will be in a bigger plane. Instead of a Mitsubishi CRJ that seats 78 passengers, it will host the Airbus 319 that seats 130 passengers.
Air Canada did not address Ross’s specific complaint about equity in New Brunswick, but a spokesperson on Tuesday said any customers with tickets for the affected routes would be offered alternate travel options, including a full refund.
“We normally make seasonal adjustments to our schedule throughout the year,” said Peter Fitzpatrick in an email. “This allows us to better allocate resources while maintaining efficiencies in our network schedule.
“Given the additional pressures on crews and equipment that airlines are facing with the high demand for regional pilots and lingering supply chain constraints, it is also an opportunity to mitigate the effect of these factors which are impacting our operations.”
Ross said the country’s biggest airline had told his officials it was still struggling to find pilots, many of whom retired or quit during the pandemic when they had little or no work.
This is happening while there’s a surge in demand for travel following two years of health and travel restrictions.
Industry watchers say factors such as stricter regulations, more extended training requirements, and an aging workforce are contributing to a shortage of pilots both in Canada and the United States.
Courtney Burns, CEO of the Greater Moncton airport, said she would expect to see a reduction in the number of seats available this fall, with bigger planes swapped out for smaller planes on afternoon flights, but so far Air Canada hasn’t said anything.
The airline is maintaining the status quo of three flights a day from Greater Moncton to Toronto and two flights a day to Montreal.
She didn’t agree with Ross that airlines should treat all New Brunswick airports the same.
“The airlines look at demand and the yields they can get out of each. And I understand all three airports in New Brunswick are in close proximity, for sure, but when they look at Moncton, they see the size of our catchment area. We can draw the most passengers from one and half to two hours’ drive away. That all plays into the route planning and airline’s decision.”
Burns said the airlines had to make difficult choices based on the constraints they’re facing with pilot and aircraft shortages. Airports in Atlantic Canada, she said, including the Halifax Stanfield International Airport, were still about 10 per cent behind the rest of the country when it came to recovering lost seats pre-pandemic.
“Demand is far exceeding what the airline industry can supply right now,” Burns said. “Our region is continuing to be impacted, and some airports more so than others.”
From the start of the year till June, Romeo LeBlanc has had 83 per cent of the number of passengers compared to the same period in the banner year 2019, just before the pandemic hit.
That is far better than last year, when it was 70 per cent recovered. Burns thinks by the end of this year, it will be as high as 90 per cent, and next year it could be a full recovery.
“That would be excellent. It would be a year earlier than we had originally anticipated when we were in the thick of COVID. So the recovery trajectory is exceeding our expectations.”
The Fredericton International Airport described the loss of the one Air Canada flight to Toronto as a normal seasonal change that will happen a month or so earlier than usual.
“It’s normal in the winter to have a reduction of flights just because of the change in demand, right?” said O’Rourke. “Most people want to travel in the summer. So instead of October, we’re seeing this change in September.”
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