Northern Economist 2.0

Friday, 15 February 2019

From Air Canada to Thunder Bay with Love...Well Maybe Not

Air Canada chose Valentine’s Day to announce a number of route changes that consist of removing older, slower, more frequent and smaller regional propeller planes (the Q400s) currently operating under Jazz and substituting newer, faster (by about 20 minutes in Thunder Bay's case) less frequent but larger jet aircraft (A319s) operating under the Rouge banner.  In the case of Thunder Bay, this means that the current six flights a day to Toronto (with 78 seat capacity for each flight) will be replaced with three flights a day (with 136 seat capacity each).  If you do the math, daily capacity on the Thunder Bay-Toronto run for Air Canada will actually fall from 468 to 408 – a drop of about 13 percent. That means you can expect a price increase at some point in the future even though the newer planes and crews Rouge uses are likely lower cost per passenger mile.

I guess I am now old enough to remember the preamble to the era of airline deregulation when Norman Bonsor, my Transportation Economics professor, would intone that deregulation was a plus for small regional markets like Thunder Bay because more expensive jet service would be replaced by more frequent and cheaper albeit slightly slower turbo-props – which is indeed what came to pass in Thunder Bay.  Air Canada’s announcement is a bit like back to the future but the new jets today are much more fuel efficient and cost effective than they were in the 1970s and 1980s.

Still, I am looking forward to seeing how this transition proceeds and the passenger response.  Going from six flights a day to three will reduce passenger travel flexibility and one expects that Air Canada will schedule its three daily flights to Pearson similar to what Westjet is doing (which incidentally also in the last while went to three from four flights daily but still uses Q400s).  For May, Westjet is showing departure times to Pearson from Thunder Bay of 6:10am, 11:50am and 17:50 pm and returns to Thunder Bay from Toronto departing at 9am, 15:10 and 21:50.  One suspects that given Air Canada is more directly competing for passengers to Pearson with Westjet, it will have its flights in slots pretty close to Westjet.

Air Canada’s move pretty much consolidates the alternatives from Thunder Bay into two – going to Pearson at nearly the same times at three times a day or going to the Island Airport.  Of course, Porter is still maintaining its Q400 6-7 flights a day service to Toronto Island which means it may pick up even more business travel from Air Canada.  It is unfortunate that Porter was not able to bring regional jet service to the Toronto Island airport because 5-6 flights a day from Thunder Bay on smaller yet faster regional jets such as a CRJ550 or CRJ700 (50 and 78 passenger max respectively) would definitely have smoked the competition out of Pearson.  Still, I suspect that Porter will see a pickup in its bookings given its greater flexibility as well as its downtown location for business travellers. It will however probably need to reinvest in its aircraft stock as its fleet begins to age.

The other claim that was made was that the Rouge airplanes were roomier and more comfortable.  Perhaps I am missing something here but having flown on some of the newer jets and flown Rouge overseas, I found the seating in the Q400 was actually a bit roomier compared to my last Rouge flight.  But it will be roomier in business class (the 136 seat version of the A319 has a business class) and that may also be part of Air Canada’s strategy to hold onto business travellers who are much more lucrative to airlines than the rest of us.

So, the changes have pros and cons and it will be interesting to see how everything comes out in the wash.  The increased competition may eventually spark some real consolidation on the Thunder Bay route - after all, if Air Canada adopts Westjet time slots with larger and faster planes to Pearson, one might see an exit by Westjet and going down to only two airlines out of Thunder Bay.  That really would be going back to the future. Or Westjet may respond by bringing in jets which will spark a pretty competitive period until the inevitable departure by one or more players brings back monopoly and higher prices. Interesting times are ahead.

For those of you who have travel with Air Canada booked in May from Thunder Bay to Toronto, you can look forward to a message soon rescheduling your flight. Have a wonderful long weekend.