Flying out of Fort St. John has been a financial burden for many in the past, but there’s good news on the horizon.
In the wake of a recent presentation to WestJet soliciting the lower-cost airline to this region, Air Canada has also added an additional flight from Fort St. John to Vancouver, which will have a more competitive price.
According to WestJet, this is a common reaction when they disrupt the monopoly that one airline has in a region.
“There are a lot of Canadian communities where they basically have one service provider… and they are paying horrifically high airfares,” said Robert Palmer, a WestJet spokesperson.
However, Air Canada assured the Alaska Highway News that the reduced rate had nothing to do with the possibility of competition coming into the area, and that it was simply part of a regular rate review.
“Great news for both Air Canada/Jazz and Fort St. John on both schedule and fares,” said Air Canada spokesperson Angela Mah.
“We review on a regular basis, all of our routes throughout our worldwide network to ensure that we have the right number of flights at the right times with the appropriate sized aircraft to meet the demand in the marketplace in both directions.”
Mah said the decision to add an additional flight is in response to “community feedback.”
“We added a fifth flight from Fort St. John to Vancouver in May – which represented a 25 per cent increase in flights and seat capacity,” said Mah.
The increased capacity also leads to a lower fare for the common route.
“A second part of our monitoring of routes is the ongoing review of fares to ensure they are aligned across markets including close airports to communities,” she said. “We look at not only the point-to-point travel that customers fly, but also whether or not there is connection demand.
“In Fort St. John, there is both point-to-point travel to Vancouver, and we see connections to Calgary, Victoria and Toronto,” she continued. “We made a decision to adjust the point-to-point fare to Vancouver, which is competitive with the fares WestJet may have connection flying out of Fort St. John in the next year.
A Fort St. John contingent made a presentation to WestJet executive soliciting the airline to the city. The presentation included a short video featuring the slogan, ‘It just makes sense,’ to come to Fort St. John.
“I can tell you that they were one of 32 communities that came to the WestJet campus from right across Canada,” said Palmer. “The only people that were invited are people that don’t currently have WestJet service.”
Palmer explained that the airline is expanding because of a new fleet of smaller planes they are purchasing.
“There’s a lot of communities across Canada that we would dearly love to provide air service to, but we can’t do that with the 737 (their current plane) because the aircraft is simply too big,” explained Palmer.
This won’t be a problem with their new fleet, which has about half the seating capacity of the current plane WestJet uses.
“This is a glorious opportunity for us to bring our WestJet service and lower fares to more Canadian communities,” said Palmer.
He noted that by the end of 2013, he expects WestJet to have between five and seven of these planes – bombardier Q-400s.
“We’ll take delivery of our first Q-400, possibly our first two, in June of 2013 and then we’ll take one a month after that,” said Palmer. “There are orders for up to 45 aircraft over the next half dozen years or so, so when the airline is at maturity… we anticipate it could have as many as 45 Q-400s in its fleet.”
He explained that these smaller planes will have two hubs – one in Calgary and one in Toronto. The company hasn’t decided whether it will start in the East or West.
“So the first handful of communities, we haven’t settled on a number just yet, that we announce in early 2013 – that won’t be the final list,” he said. “There will be communities added to that as we take, over the years, as we take delivery of aircraft.
“I know that’s when (in early 2013) people are going to think they won the lottery and they look to see if they’re on the list,” he said. “If you’re not on the list early in 2013, it doesn’t mean you’re not getting service.”
The company looks at two main factors during the decision making process concerning the routes.
“The first one is really not unlike when any large business would contemplate coming to a smaller community.”
Those factors include the area’s size, economy, labour force and diversity of business. The second set of questions surround how their potential competition, in Fort St. John’s case, Air Canada, is doing.
“At the end of the day, the single biggest question is can and will a community sustain air service,” said Palmer.
“That’s part of the competitive landscape,” he continued.
He said that wherever WestJet goes, they bring with them lower airfares and more competition.
“We fully expect that will happen when we bring our regional airline to Canadian communities is that airfares will drop dramatically and the consumer will ultimately benefit,” said Palmer.
Though Air Canada’s decision to add a flight and reduce the fare to Vancouver occurred in May, Mah said they are constantly reviewing fares and schedules.
“We will continue to review both fares and schedule and will continue to make adjustments as warranted,” she said.
Adjustments may have to be made if WestJet lands in Fort St. John in 2013.
“It’s the million-dollar question,” said Palmer. “Everybody’s on pins and needles.”