WestJet is focused on getting back to three flights a day between Kamloops to Calgary and is in “recovery mode,” according to Andy Gibbons, its vice-president of government relations and regulatory affairs.
Meanwhile, it does not appear as though the airline’s brief Kamloops to Edmonton trial run route will become permanent any time soon.
The loss of aviation due to the COVID-19 pandemic led to a decrease of more than 89 per cent of passengers through Kamloops Airport, impacting the region’s economy and resulting in more than 15 per cent of employees in tourism being laid off, according to WestJet.
Gibbons spoke about Kamloops Airport operations and what a successful restart for travel and tourism will look like for the region.
Amidst the pandemic, WestJet did not cut service entirely at Kamloops, but flights were reduced and have not yet returned to pre-pandemic levels. The airline currently has two flights per day between Kamloops and Calgary, one shy of its usual three.
“That’s the goal before us. We know there’s a lot of hope for other destinations and other flights, but right now we’re in a recovery phase,” Gibbons told KTW.
On July 5, WestJet added a twice weekly flight between Kamloops and Edmonton to try to stimulate demand, but Gibbons confirmed the seasonal flight will end as scheduled on Aug. 4. He said the flight hasn’t performed as expected, but noted it is still operating during a difficult time for the airline industry.
Gibbons said WestJet is committed to the Kamloops market and is exploring a Kamloops to Vancouver flight, but noted the priority is restoring the flight frequency with Calgary, though there is no plans for an immediate change from the twice-daily schedule.
Right now, the Kamloops-Vancouver route is serviced by Air Canada, Pacific Coastal and Central Mountain Air.
Asked what it will take to get WestJet flight volumes and employees back to pre-pandemic levels at Kamloops, Gibbons noted stability surrounding the pandemic and government restrictions easing to allow for an uptick in consumer confidence for business and recreational travel to the city.
Though the company is in recovery, there is strong demand for air travel between B.C. and Alberta and Kamloops has an opportunity to position itself in that, based on WestJet’s data, Gibbons said.
“Sixty one per cent of Canadians say their next trip will be a domestic trip and 44 per cent say they’d like it to be to British Columbia,” Gibbons said.
What stood out to him from a Zoom meeting last week with various Kamloops groups was the talk of population increase, the number of head offices located in the community and seasonal workers coming and going.
“It’s always helpful to understand those dynamics better because, while we have tried investments in direct flights with Vancouver and Edmonton previously, those have not worked out, so whatever ingredients may be different now that will allow them to work is a good thing,” Gibbons said.
At its lowest point during the pandemic, employment at WestJet was down to 5,000 active employees and 5,000 furloughed employees, with 5,000 permanently laid off. Pre-pandemic employee count was at 15,000, Gibbons said, noting demand and volumes at their lowest point were “off of a cliff” — down 90 per cent.
Numbers have improved since, but the company is still in its early stages of recovery. WestJet still has about 5,000 active employees, but Gibbons said the company is in the midst of recalls.
Gibbons did not have specifics for the number of employees at Kamloops that WestJet has laid off or recalled to date. Company spokesperson Madison Kruger told KTW she could not provide specific numbers for Kamloops Airport at this time, noting that in June 2020, WestJet contracted out all its airport operations in all domestic airports outside of Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton and Toronto to streamline the company for a competitive future following the COVID-19 crisis.
Funds flown to Fulton Field
The Kamloops Airport Authority Society is getting more than $1.2 million in federal funding from Canada's Regional Air Transportation Initiative (RATI).
Launched in March 2021, RATI enables regional air carriers and airports to remain operational amidst the difficulties of the pandemic and to continue contributing to regional economic growth, while adapting to new post-pandemic realities and requirements.
The federal government has announced $11.7 million in RATI funding for 11 regional airports in B.C., which includes $1.26 million earmarked for Kamloops.