Experts weigh in on the future of flights in Saskatchewan after a month of service disruptions

Travellers line up to check their Sunwing airline flights at Terminal 2 of Cancun international airport in Cancun, Quintana Roo state, Mexico, on Dec. 27, 2022. (Elizabeth Ruiz/AFP/Getty Images - image credit)
Travellers line up to check their Sunwing airline flights at Terminal 2 of Cancun international airport in Cancun, Quintana Roo state, Mexico, on Dec. 27, 2022. (Elizabeth Ruiz/AFP/Getty Images - image credit)

Sunwing cancelling its flights out of Saskatchewan until Feb. 3 and Air Canada no longer offering direct flights from Saskatoon and Regina to Calgary starting in mid-January is changing the future of air travel in the province.

"The announcements literally dropped out of the sky and it has grown into a real concern," Jason Aebig, CEO of the Greater Saskatoon Chamber of Commerce, told CBC's Blue Sky.

"The experience on the streets is that it is more expensive and challenging to travel. Many companies in our cities require air travel."

Besides business travel being in trouble, Aebig said many educational institutions in Saskatchewan that attract researchers and academicians across the world, who have "very heavily relied" on Air Canada routes from Calgary, will be affected.

"There isn't a major company or a major institution in this province that isn't going to be affected in some way by these decisions," he said.

"I hope it doesn't translate to something where we see the business head offices moving away from here."

He said people should put pressure on Air Canada's board and shareholders, as the company's "short-sighted" decision will have negative implications on Saskatchewan.

"We urge Air Canada to revisit its decision around the Calgary hub," he said. "It has been an important connection for 30 years."

Morgan Modjeski/CBC
Morgan Modjeski/CBC

Calling Sunwing's decision a "head-scratcher," Aebig said the winter season is usually the busiest time as many flee subzero temperatures. The cancellations have disrupted many wedding and anniversary celebrations.

Last week, Sunwing had said its initial plan of supplementing seasonal demand for travel from Saskatoon and Regina with the assistance of temporary foreign pilots for the winter months fell through.

Aebig said Sunwing's reasoning is not adequate.

"Any airline that makes its bread and butter on hot holiday packages wouldn't have been better prepared to deliver the service at the peak time of year to this market," he said.

"The reasons given are pretty flimsy given the core business Sunwing is in."

On Thursday, Sunwing Travel Group CEO Stephen Hunter and Sunwing Airlines president Len Corrado said in a joint statement that they "failed to live up to" the promise of making Canadians' vacation dreams come true this season.

"We had clear failures in execution, particularly in responding to weather-related delays and the aftermath of severe weather disruptions, which limited our ability to reposition aircraft and crew to other airports to help alleviate the backlog in flights," the statement said.

"We have completed all recovery flights related to the holiday disruption and have a roadmap in place to ensure that these issues do not repeat themselves in January or any of the months that follow."

Calgary-based independent aviation industry analyst Rick Erickson said he is still at a loss of words to understand decisions of the two airlines.

"A lot of the problems stem from the COVID circumstances when there were cutbacks right to the bone," he said, noting air carriers were having minimal revenues.

"Our federal government was providing very little in terms of handouts. In the U.S., airlines got $25 billion in outright grants. In Canada, we had some carriers like Sunwing and Air Canada who took short term loans."

Erickson said cutbacks were consequently made to staffing. He said Sunwing probably made hard decisions and "Saskatchewan took the brunt of it," as the airline serves east more than west.

He said WestJet wants to buy the airline — hoping to tap into that Eastern Canadian market and Sunwing's resorts — but that decision may not be concrete until summer.

Hina Itsaso/The Canadian Press
Hina Itsaso/The Canadian Press

Erickson said Air Canada's decision to remove its routes to Calgary from the province may have some reason to it.

"Air Canada's in the process of replacing its fleets. They've really cut back on the smaller airplanes like the Dash 8 fleet and are so left with larger airplanes," he said.

"I think their rationale is that they don't know that Saskatchewan could fill up say 180 seats a couple of times a day in some of the markets. [They may think] if we don't think we can make money with those, we're just not going to serve the market."

He said "newbies" like Flair and Lynx Air that are expanding their operations may also help.

Saskatoon resident Doug Kopko said that reduced flights might also affect the upcoming downtown arena, which the city hopes will bring people from other regions.

Carol Marriott, who hosts international volunteers at Ravenheart Equine-Assisted Learning Centre and Retreat, near Kamsack, Sask., emailed CBC saying this would impact them too.

"It's beyond embarrassing for us Saskatchewan people who know of the success of transportation in Europe," she said.

"Our small rural businesses are suffering as guests and workers/volunteers can no longer travel to us unless they are able to drive themselves. Saskatchewan may as well close up and go back to previous years when everyone left the province."

Jake Pushie, another Saskatoon resident, said he is concerned about increasing fare prices and changes in service to Calgary, a city he likes to go to.

"Logistically it is easier to drive to Calgary than pay the high air travel prices."