Saturday, June 15, 2024

‘Somebody’s got to pay’ for air travel: WestJet makes pitch to Ottawa

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WestJet is asking the federal government to put measures in place to lower ticket costs for travellers, but questions remain on who would foot the bill.


The WestJet Group’s CEO, Alexis von Hoensbroech, is asking the federal government to review the fees added on top of tickets that pay for airport maintenance and projects. He also wants the fees frozen while the review is underway.


On top of the base price of their seat on the plane, flyers have to pay extra fees for airports, navigation and government taxes.


Airports charge Airport Improvement Fees (AIFs), which vary depending on where you fly. Generally, those costs amount to around $35.


Government fees include GST and PST, in addition to costs for air navigation, which are variable depending on the distance you fly and the cost of the ticket.


“The general consensus is that the fee structure is comparatively high,” said Hoensbroech during a conference in Calgary on Wednesday.


“I’ve just completed a visit to Atlantic Canada to talk to the premiers and the local business community and they all say the same,” he said. “They all perceive this as being a challenge.”


‘Somebody’s got to pay’


Aviation management expert John Gradek says he believes the user-pay model should be looked at again, but finding a replacement is a complicated ask.


“If it’s not user-pay, what is it? Somebody’s got to pay for the airport, somebody’s got to pay for the runway, somebody’s got to pay for parking lots and expansion of the terminal. Who pays for that?” asked Gradek, a faculty lecturer at McGill University.


“The alternative to user-pay is you and I as taxpayers. General taxpayers will start paying for that fare,” he said.


What are we paying for?


Canadian airports pay about half a billion dollars in rent to Transport Canada every year. WestJet says that should stop, and the money should be redirected.


“They can reinvest this into infrastructure. Some of the airports in Canada need investments into infrastructure,” said Hoensbroech.


“Or, they can use it to lower fares.”


CTV News reached out to the federal transport ministry for response. A spokesperson said the responsibility goes both ways.


“We’ll continue to work with our partners to attract more investments in our airports, so that millions of passengers can continue to pass through their doors every year,” wrote Transport Ministry spokesperson Laurent de Casanove in an email.


“Canadians work hard and save up to travel. They expect to leave on time, and they expect good service standards. Airlines should make improving their services a top priority and do a little bit better for Canadians.”


Billions of dollars in debt


Chris Dinsdale, the Calgary Airport Authority President and CEO, said the Calgary airport took a serious hit during the pandemic.


“We’ve got $3.3 billion in debt. We added $300 million in debt during COVID-19. These numbers are difficult hurdles,” he said.


He proposed that instead, that rent money could go towards “debt repayment to get the debt down and under control, (and) sustainability. There are quality improvements. The list goes on and on.”


At the conference, WestJet also revealed plans to add more seats in the back of some of its bigger planes. Its Max 8 planes currently have 174 seats, but that number could soon go up to 180.


“They actually have the space that you can take a little bit of legroom away and compensate that with more seats and still add another row,” said Hoensbroech.


WestJet says more seats and new, reduced fare options for flyers willing to forgo a carry-on bag will make travel more affordable. 

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