REGINA - Regina Airport Authority CEO James Bogusz is taking a “glass more than half full” approach following the recent string of announcements about airline flights to and from the Regina International Airport.
“Yes, we’ve had unfortunate news about Sunwing, but we’ve had some great news from WestJet. Yes, we’ve had some turbulent news from Air Canada, but vice versa, we expect to be serving Montreal this summer,” Bogusz said.
“My glass here is more than half full because I have the luxury of looking ahead at the data. The data supports the best year we’ve had in three years, and boy oh boy, are we due for that.”
He was reacting following a tumultuous day on Tuesday when the airport received a dose of positive and negative news.
The good news was that WestJet had stepped forward by adding additional flights to and from Calgary following the departure of Air Canada from those routes. Instead of three to five Calgary flights a day out of Regina, WestJet will be offering five to seven.
The bad news was the announcement that Sunwing was cancelling its entire winter sun destination program out of Regina, with the exception of only a few flights. The carrier had already cancelled its winter service through Regina to Feb., but now it was cancelling the service after Feb. 4 as well. The only flights still going were Sunday departures to Puerto Vallarta, a single flight there on Feb. 17, Mazatlan on Feb. 17, and Cancun Feb. 18 and 20.
Bad Sunwing news -- again
Saskatchewan has been no stranger to bad news from Sunwing, after their announcement in December that they were suspending their winter service until Feb. 4. The news has been met by outrage from passengers upset that their winter getaway or even wedding plans had been ruined, as well as by a potential class action lawsuit from a Regina law firm.
Yet the latest news that the airline was cancelling their winter service almost completely out of Regina seems an even bigger surprise. Bogusz said news of the latest Sunwing cancellations “came very unexpectedly to the airport."
“I’ve been in this industry over two decades. I very much understand that airlines change schedules from time to time. Certainly a flight can be cancelled here and there -- even if it’s not for weather, it could be for a variety of reasons. It’s really rare, in fact I can’t speak to another example where you get a cascade of cancellations on what I would call relatively short notice.”
He noted the airline had well-publicized challenges during the holiday season due to weather, followed by the reports of Sunwing travellers being stranded in sun destinations.
That was followed by the initial news of the stoppage of service to Saskatchewan, but the expectation was always that Sunwing would be back with flights after Feb. 4. “As much as we were very disappointed for the thousands of people who were impacted, we at least knew that part of the season would be salvaged,” said Bogusz.
“This is going to impact thousands more who live here in Saskatchewan, in southern Saskatchewan.”
The Sunwing news hits during one of the airport's typically busy times of the year: the winter getaway months in December, January and February when weather in Saskatchewan is the coldest.
Bogusz points out that cold-weather locales like Regina, Saskatoon and Winnipeg have a “disproportionately high amount of sun flying” because of where they are located. The result is usually a busy time, but this year the cancelled service has hit YQR hard.
Usually, the airport would have up to eight Sunwing flights a week in total to locations in Mexico, Cuba and the Dominican Republic.
“Now we’re down to one flight to Puerto Vallarta, plus four additional flights in total, which is a massive reduction.”
There are other options still available. WestJet does offer direct flights from Regina to U.S. destinations Phoenix, Orlando and Las Vegas, and has a limited schedule of flights to Mexico.
But for Dominican Republic and Cuba, “those nonstop are only served by Sunwing,” Bogusz said. For Regina travellers still intent on getting to a Sun destination, it means increased hassles of flying to a hub city like Calgary or Toronto for connecting flights.
As for reaction to the Sunwing cancellations, it has been “all negative,” said Bogusz. He acknowledged the blowback for Sunwing could be long lasting.
“Where I worry about is the reputational damage that’s been done, and it’s the risks that customers may remember from this year where they may be more reluctant to say ‘you know what? I’m concerned about what happened in ‘22, ‘23, in terms of the winter were in right now and how that would impact (their) travel plans.”
Good WestJet news
The addition of two more WestJet flights to Calgary starting in the middle of February — peaking at five to seven daily flights in March — is welcome news for the Regina airport in the wake of the decision by Air Canada to end their regular Calgary service.
The loss of Air Canada’s one daily Calgary route, which saw the final flight take place this week, as well as the loss of two Saskatoon flights a day to Calgary has received a negative reaction from local residents who saw it as a slap in the face to Saskatchewan.
In response Economic Development Regina had written a letter to Air Canada executives soon after the news broke, calling for the Regina route be restored.
Just this week, after WestJet announced it would fill the void, the Saskatoon Chamber of Commerce called on the Competition Bureau to investigate Air Canada and WestJet for collusion.
“This particular cut struck a nerve,” Bogusz said of the Air Canada cut. He acknowledged a lot of the narrative heard in the public was that “Saskatchewan was being singled out.”
But Bogusz pointed out much larger cities also lost Air Canada service, including larger markets such as Victoria and San Francisco as well as reduced service in Kelowna, Edmonton and other airports.
Also, he pointed out that during the pandemic there was a period of about nine months when Air Canada had suspended their Calgary route, and “no one had a concern.”
What is happening now was the result of a much larger realignment where Air Canada was focusing on their hubs in Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver.
Bogusz noted Regina has seen some benefits from that shift, with the addition in 2020 of a summer service direct flight to Montreal.
But it also means less of a focus on Calgary by Air Canada, with that airline moving a lot of their fleet to those other three cities for connections.
The opposite is happening with WestJet. “WestJet announced that Calgary airport would be their global hub,” said Bogusz.
What it means is WestJet is adding more capacity in Calgary, which in turn means more flights to Regina.
Bogusz pointed to 140 departures to Calgary in the month of January. By March, he expects that number to be up to 200.
The total seat count added is around 5,000, Bogusz said, which he says is important for the GDP, for connectivity, and prices. He sees fares being offered in the month of March at around $200.
“That is a great value, especially after considering what we went through with inflation and the pandemic.”
WestJet will offer most flights on the smaller Q400 aircraft, but will also be using a larger 737 for one of the daily flights.
Bogusz is welcoming the move by WestJet to make Calgary their global hub. “My goal right now is to embrace that strategy, but also work with Air Canada to make sure they add more capacity to the cities that they serve nonstop, Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal.”
He pledged to ensure Air Canada continues to see Saskatchewan in a positive light because while Calgary was the Regina airport’s number one market, “Toronto is number two.” And only Air Canada has offered that daily direct service year-round, he said.
Courting ultra low cost carriers
Bogusz also says the airport is courting ultra-low cost carriers again, fresh on the heels of adding Swoop routes to Edmonton and Winnipeg last year.
He said the airport has had talks with ultra low cost airlines Canada Jetlines and Lynx, as well as with Porter Airlines. Porter has added some jets and has been looking at expansion.
Flair is another carrier in the mix, having flown to Regina in the past. They recently announced they were adding a Calgary flight from Saskatoon.
“We literally talk to airlines on a regular basis,” said Bogusz. He emphasized the airport has been successful at adding ultra-low cost carriers during the summer for the last three years.
Optimism about 2023
Talk about Air Canada, WestJet and Sunwing routes and all the air travel turmoil has dominated discussion at water coolers and coffee row in Saskatchewan.
What was being lost on people, Bogusz emphasized, is that the Regina airport was in a different place a year ago.
Last year at this same time, YQR was at 30 per cent of prepandemic passenger levels. Bogusz noted that during the two years of the pandemic, restrictions were in place, staff was laid off, and there was a vaccination mandate in place until October. When flights did pick back up during 2022, prices were also high.
As evidenced by the recent struggles with Sunwing, the air travel industry is still not yet removed from its pandemic problems. But based on the numbers he sees, Bogusz sees a bright year ahead.
“When I look at Regina’s information and look at what I call forward-looking seat capacity,” said Bogusz, “I can tell you unequivocally I am very optimistic for 2023.”
Bogusz foresees seats returning to the best in three years, airlines offering more flights to more places, and extra investments made by airlines such as Air Canada and WestJet.
“This is very positive. A year ago today, if we had the same interview, I would not be feeling this way. Seats were limited, prices were high. We’re going to be in a much better place, but we have to get through this next short jaunt, and we have to recognize that the road back to normalcy, there’s going to be bumps in the road. And we’re seeing one, unfortunately, with Sunwing.”