WestJet ‘proactively’ cut flights from Pearson

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Toronto airport has been the epicenter of travel issues affecting air passengers

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CALGARY — As the Canadian travel industry continues to struggle with an unprecedented rebound in demand, WestJet Airlines Ltd. flies 32% fewer flights to and from Toronto Pearson International Airport in July than before the pandemic.

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Chief executive Alexis von Hoensbroech said Calgary-based WestJet made a series of proactive schedule reductions between March and May in anticipation of logistical issues that have led to long lines, connections blocked and canceled flights experienced by travelers at Canadian airports in recent weeks.

“I don’t think there’s another airline that flies to Toronto that has cut its schedule as much as we have,” von Hoensbroech said in an interview Thursday. “We have been quite proactive and thoughtful in managing our flight plans.”

As Canada’s largest airport, Toronto Pearson has been the epicenter of travel-related issues affecting air passengers in this country since the beginning of the lifting of public health restrictions related to COVID. Airlines and airports that dramatically reduced staffing levels when air travel almost came to a standstill at the start of the pandemic have found themselves unprepared for the dramatic resurgence in demand this spring.

WestJet, for example, which hit a pandemic low of just 4,000 employees in 2020, has boosted its workforce to 10,000, but that’s still nearly 30% less than the 14,000 employees it had in 2019.

“We’ve hired over 1,000 people in the past two months, and we’re now hiring another 100 people just to deal with baggage issues. We have increased our call center staff by 20%,” said von Hoensbroech.

“We are doing everything we can to recruit staff, but we also know that in all sectors we are seeing a shortage of staff. It’s not just a WestJet problem, it’s not just an aviation problem, it’s a general economic problem.

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According to analytics firm Data Wazo, 54% of domestic flights to Canada’s four largest airports were delayed or canceled in the past week. Toronto’s Pearson airport was the hardest hit, with more than 700 flights (51%) delayed and 15% cancelled.

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On Wednesday evening, Air Canada announced that it would cut its July and August schedule by more than 15%, or more than 9,500 flights, due to the strained air transport system. Most Air Canada flights will remove the link to the airline’s hubs in Toronto and Montreal.

But von Hoensbroech said that because WestJet acted earlier to cut capacity in Toronto, it doesn’t expect to have to make any additional “structural” cuts to its summer schedule.

“It may still happen that we have to cancel flights at short notice, as has also happened in the last two weeks,” he said. “But it should be to a limited extent.”

Airports in other parts of the country are performing much better than Pearson, von Hoensbroech said. In the Alberta market, for example, WestJet has returned to its pre-pandemic level of flight offerings, and things are working relatively well.

Nationally, WestJet is operating approximately 530 flights per day this summer, down 25% from summer 2019.

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“We have the advantage of having the majority of our capacity in the western part of Canada, and the western part of Canada is less impacted by these operational challenges,” he said.

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Earlier this year, aviation industry officials blamed COVID-19 protocols, such as Canada’s random testing requirement for international arrivals, of contributing to bottlenecks at airports.

But the problems continued to escalate this month, despite the federal government’s decision to suspend that program as well as other measures like a federal hiring spree for security and customs officers.

“I think the only party to blame for this is the pandemic. Because that’s where the problems come from,” von Hoensbroech said. “I think what we can really say is that there isn’t a single party that doesn’t do their homework. Everyone is trying to solve this problem.

Von Hoensbroech said WestJet had done a lot of contingency planning for the Canada Day long weekend, which is expected to deliver the highest travel volumes in the country since 2019. However, he said operational parameters The airline’s performance, while improving in recent weeks, is still ‘far from good’ – with travelers unlikely to see any significant respite until travel volumes drop in September.

“We are crossing our fingers that it will be a relatively stable weekend. But again, the challenges are there,” he said. “After the summer holidays, things should improve a lot… And next year, we hope that we will be in a good position again.”

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