Prince George air travelers will know sometime next year if WestJet plans to restore direct flights to Victoria, Calgary or Edmonton and which new B.C. connections it will add when it launches its new regional airline.
And it's still too early to tell whether that regional service will take flight first in Western Canada or the eastern half of the country.
WestJet unveiled its new winter schedule in late July and it will be business as usual with three daily flights (two on Saturdays) to and from Vancouver. The Calgary-based airline will also offer weekly direct flights on Saturdays to Puerto Vallarta, starting on Nov. 3.
Delegations from 32 smaller Canadian cities not already served by WestJet, including Nanaimo, Penticton and Castlegar, attended an open house June 28 that will help the airline decide on its first list of regional stops, which will be announced in January. WestJet spokesman Robert Palmer said more B.C. cities were represented in that meeting than from any other province.
"There's a tremendous appetite for WestJet in British Columbia, the province is pretty spread out," said Palmer. "That won't be the final list, because as we add additional aircraft, then we add additional cities."
WestJet already lands in Prince George, Vancouver, Victoria, Kamloops, Kelowna and Comox.
The airline will take delivery of its first Bombardier Q-400 turboprop plane in June 2013. Made in Downsview, Ont., near WestJet's eastern base in Toronto, the new planes will be built to carry 74 passengers on one- or two-hour flights within a range of 1,800 kilometres. Unlike other propeller-driven commercial aircraft like the original de Havilland Canada Dash 8, the cabins of the new planes have been designed for engine noise suppression. The regional fleet will include 45 planes, bought over six years in a $1.35-billion deal with Bombardier.
"Part of the mission of this regional airline is to liberate Canadians from the high cost of air travel, everybody is looking for the service because they are paying outrageous fares to fly where they need to fly," said Palmer. "In many cases, this situation is repeated across the country. There are small communities that either don't have air service, or if they do have air service they have one, and the problem is it's a monopoly. They are paying way too much money in single airline markets."
Several years ago, WestJet used to offer direct flights to Calgary and Victoria on Boeing 737s but dropped the service when it had trouble filling those 136-seat jets.
Lindsay Cotter, marketing and communications manager of the Prince George Airport Authority, says the airport will continue to press WestJet to open up more direct flights in Western Canada, but can't make any plans to market those connections until details of the regional airline are known.
"We feel flights to Calgary and Edmonton from Prince George would be viable on the Q400 and we'll continue to make our business case for those locations," said Cotter.
"We were there earlier this year to check in with WestJet, showcasing what areas we feel would work and how we could see the Q400s working out of Prince George. It is a smaller aircraft so it gives our area a better chance to fill a plane and make a route successful. We're hoping this will give more options for northern residents out of Prince George."
Prince George airport is on pace for a record-setting year for passenger traffic at the YXS terminal, which would surpass the 417,484 record set in 2008. After that spike, the number of passengers dropped to 376,000 in 2009, but the numbers have steadily climbed ever since.