The return of suspended WestJet flights in June could be just the beginning of a beefed-up flight schedule to New Brunswick and other Atlantic provinces — and reopening to the rest of Canada.
WestJet announced early Wednesday that service is set to resume to the five airports it suspended service from in November, including Fredericton and Moncton, beginning June 24 through to June 30, 2021.
"We committed to return to the communities we left as a result of the pandemic, and we will be restoring flights to these regions in the coming months, of our own volition," WestJet president and CEO Ed Sims said in a news release.
At a news conference later Wednesday, WestJet officials said that the region's accelerated vaccine rollout and the planned reopening of the Atlantic bubble fuelled plans to restore flight service, and that the airline expects demand will be "very high."
"Once travel restrictions are lifted, and we believe firmly that that will happen, our expectation is that demand will be very high this summer," WestJet vice-president and chief commercial officer John Weatherill said.
"There's a lot of pent-up demand from families who haven't been able to see each other for more than a year."
If that demand is strong enough, he said, WestJet will "absolutely consider adding more flights" to the single daily flights currently announced for the Fredericton and Moncton airports.
WestJet flights to Fredericton will resume on June 26, and flights to Moncton will resume on June 30.
Saint John Airport could be next, Higgs says
In Fredericton, Premier Blaine Higgs welcomed the announcement and said he sees the stated end-of-June start dates as a target date for opening to the rest of Canada.
"I would say their interest in doing so would be predicated on our ability to open up to the rest of the country," Higgs told reporters.
"Getting the Atlantic bubble back in businesses on April 19, having the vaccine rollout effectively managed throughout all of the provinces," lifting travel restrictions — all of this will get the provinces aligned to open Canada at the same time, he said.
Higgs also suggested Saint John Airport could be next in line for a recovery bump, perhaps within weeks.
"It's good news that they want to get back in the province and that they're picking another airport to open up to, not just Moncton," he said.
"I'd like to think it's just a matter of a week or two or three and we'll get Saint John included as well."
3-month delay explained
Monette Pasher, executive director of the Atlantic Canada Airports Association, echoed that sentiment.
In an interview with Shift on Wednesday afternoon, Pasher said communities' airports are intricately linked to their economic recovery.
"Our airports provide such important economic development roles in our communities, I just can't imagine a time when we would see a community not have their airport," she said.
"It has been challenging, but we're all working together to get back on a better footing and kickstart travel."
Asked why the airline's restart date is three months off, Pasher stressed that amount of lead time is crucial.
"This window of the time frame shows that's the amount of time they need to plan, to gauge if there's demand, to put these contracts back in place, rehire furloughed employees and pilots," she said.
"There's so much work that goes into restarting air travel."