Amanda Stevenson, The Canadian Press
Published Thursday, June 30, 2022 5:44 PM EST
Last updated Thursday, June 30, 2022 5:47 PM EST
Calgary – As the Canadian travel industry continues to struggle with an unprecedented recovery in demand, WestJet Airlines Ltd. With 32 percent fewer flights to and from Toronto Pearson International Airport in July than it did before the pandemic.
CEO Alexis von Hoensbroech said Calgary-based WestJet made a series of proactive schedule cuts between March and May in anticipation of logistical problems that have led to long queues, communication disruptions and flight cancellations that travelers have experienced at Canadian airports in recent weeks.
“I don’t think another airline serving Toronto has cut its schedule as much as we have,” von Hoensbroch said in an interview Thursday. “We have been very proactive and thoughtful in handling our flight plans.”
As Canada’s largest airport, Toronto Pearson has been the epicenter of travel-related problems affecting air travelers in this country since the lifting of COVID-related public health restrictions began. Airlines and airports, which cut staffing levels drastically when air travel nearly came to a halt at the start of the pandemic, have found themselves ill-prepared for a dramatic return in demand this spring.
WestJet, for example, which reached an epidemic low of just 4,000 employees in 2020, has built its headcount again to 10,000, but that’s still about 30 percent less than the 14,000 in 2019.
“We have employed more than 1,000 people in the past two months, and we are now hiring another 100 people to handle baggage challenges. We have increased our call center staff by 20 percent,” said von Hunsbroch.
“We are doing everything we can to get staff, but we also know that in all industries, we are experiencing staff shortages. It’s not just a WestJet problem, it’s not just an aviation problem – it’s a general economic problem.”
According to analytics firm Data Wazo, 54 percent of domestic flights to Canada’s four largest airports have been delayed or canceled over the past week. The hardest hit was Toronto’s Pearson Airport, where more than 700 flights were delayed (51 per cent) and 15 per cent canceled.
On Wednesday evening, Air Canada said it would cut more than 15 percent of its July and August schedule, more than 9,500 flights, due to the strained air transportation system. Most Air Canada flights will remove the link to the airline’s Toronto and Montreal hubs.
But von Hoensbroech said that because WestJet moved sooner to reduce its capacity in Toronto, it does not expect to have to make any additional “structural” cuts to its summer schedule.
“It is still possible that we will have to cancel flights at short notice, as has happened over the past two weeks as well,” he said. “But this should be to a limited extent.”
Von Honsbroch said airports in other parts of the country are running more smoothly than Pearson Airport. In the Alberta market, for example, WestJet is back to its pre-pandemic level of flight offerings, and things are doing relatively well.
Nationwide, WestJet is operating approximately 530 flights per day this summer, or 25 percent fewer flights than it operated in the summer of 2019.
“We have the advantage that we have the majority of our capacity in the western part of Canada, and the western part of Canada is less affected by these operational challenges,” he said.
Earlier this year, airline industry officials blamed COVID-19 protocols, such as Canada’s random testing requirements for international arrivals, for contributing to the jams at airports.
But problems continued to escalate this month, despite the federal government’s decision to halt that program as well as other measures such as a wave of federal hirings for security and customs personnel.
I think the only party responsible for this is the epidemic. “Because that’s where the problems come from,” said von Honsbroch. “I think what we can really say is that there is not one party that is not doing their homework. Everyone is trying to solve this problem.”
Von Hoensbroech said WestJet implemented a significant amount of contingency planning on the long weekend of Canada Day, which is expected to bring in the highest travel volumes in the country since 2019. However, he said the airline’s operating standards, although improved in recent weeks , is still “far from good” – as travelers are unlikely to see significant respite until travel volumes drop in September.
“We have had our fingers crossed that this is going to be a relatively stable weekend. But again, the challenges are there.” After the summer break, things should look a lot better. . . And next year we hope to be in good shape again.”
This report was first published by The Canadian Press on June 30, 2022.