As post-pandemic travel reopens, direct flights from N.L. to Europe still not on the itinerary

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St. John’s Airport Authority and WestJet say flight network planning and local demand are major factors

Jonny Hodder • CBC News • March 19, 2022

St. John’s International Airport is the largest airport in Newfoundland and Labrador. (CBC)

With pandemic restrictions lifting across much of Canada and in many other parts of the world, lots of folks are itching to take that long-delayed vacation or business trip.

And while it’s become increasingly easy to hop on a non-stop flight from St. John’s to numerous cities and provinces within Canada, the same cannot be said for international destinations.

For most of the past two years, the only consistent, direct, international flight landing at St. John’s International Airport originated from the French islands of St-Pierre-Miquelon, west of the Burin Peninsula. 

Air Saint-Pierre was granted an exemption to the 2020 travel ban that allowed it to send medevac flights to St. John’s. As some restrictions eased through 2021, that service expanded to include two weekly commercial flights, according to Lisa Bragg of the St. John’s International Airport Authority.

But even as international travel opens up, transatlantic flights from the province’s largest airport to the United Kingdom and continental Europe are still not on the itinerary.

Lisa Bragg is director of business development and marketing for the St. John’s International Airport Authority. (Patrick Butler/Radio-Canada)

Bragg compares the situation to a restaurant offering a limited number of top-selling and high-profit menu items. 

She says airlines have seen significantly lower passenger volumes and reduced routes over the past two years, so as they try to recover the focus has to be on higher-traffic routes.

“While we’re very proud of having lots of passengers, and we’re the capital city airport, right now many of the airlines do need to focus on the hubs. And hopefully it will come back to us. But right now that’s one of the reasons we don’t yet have the European connection back,” Bragg said.

A long history of international flights

Weekly flights from St. John’s to the United Kingdom were the norm not too long ago.

St. John’s International Airport has offered direct flights to the U.K. and continental Europe since the 1940s, according to Bragg. (CBC)

In fact, according to Bragg, St. John’s has a history of direct European flights going back more than 70 years.

“There’s actually been a direct or a non-stop, year-round flight flight to Europe since the 1940s until about 2006,” she said.

More recently, Air Canada operated a direct flight to London’s Heathrow Airport from 2010 to 2019, while WestJet offered direct flights to Dublin, from 2014 to 2018, and London’s Gatwick airport from 2016 to 2018.

The Air Canada flight was suspended in early 2019, after the Boeing 737 Max 8 aircrafts were grounded worldwide due to safety concerns after a couple of highly publicized crashes. 

When asked if there are any plans to reinstate the route, Air Canada said in a series of emailed statements that the pandemic forced the company to extend the suspension of that flight route until further notice. 

“At this time, Air Canada does not have plans to add any international flying out of St. John’s,” one statement read. 

As for WestJet’s flights to the U.K., public relations manager Morgan Bell said the decision to end those in 2018 comes down to the numbers.

“Cancelling flights is essentially always our last resort,” she said. “That route simply wasn’t performing to expectations. Frankly, there wasn’t enough guests on that plane to continue to operate it, so unfortunately it was cancelled.”

Halifax becoming ‘Atlantic Gateway’ to Europe

Both WestJet and Air Canada say there are no immediate plans to bring back a direct flight between St. John’s and the U.K. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

From a geographical point of view, it’s easy enough to look at a map and think St. John’s, as the easternmost point in Canada and therefore the shortest distance to our neighbours across the pond, would make a logical location for a direct flight to Europe.

Instead, WestJet has positioned Halifax’s Stanfield Airport as what it calls the “Atlantic Gateway” to Europe.

Bell says the decision to make Halifax the centre for European flights goes beyond the specific demands of the St. John’s market, and has more to do with large scale scheduling for a complicated “hub and spoke” network of interprovincial and international flights.

“When you ultimately are starting at that very, very eastern point of the country, you’re missing all of those westbound connections,” she said. “The frequency and connections and timing of flights that land in that region pull in people from east and west at all times of the day.”

And as borders open up, Halifax will continue to act as WestJet’s European gateway, offering flights to Paris, London Gatwick, Dublin, and Glasgow, in some cases multiple times per week, beginning in May. 

WestJet also recently announced that it will begin weekly seasonal service from St. John’s to Orlando on April 2. 

N.L. flights to Europe a ‘huge’ potential market

The irony of having very few international flights servicing an airport with “International” in its name is not lost on Lisa Bragg.

As COVID-19 travel restrictions ease, St. John’s International Airport is looking forward to seeing more passengers and air traffic. (Gary Locke/CBC)

She said the airport authority has ongoing conversations with domestic and international carriers, looking for opportunities to bring more routes to the people of this province.

That process, however, takes time. 

Pre-pandemic, Bragg says new international routes could take a couple of years to set up. But that’s changing with the lifting of international travel restrictions. 

She says airlines are speeding up their timelines for planning new flights, which could actually work to the benefit of an airport ready and eager to welcome more direct flights to and from other countries.

“We’ve done our homework. Businesses really want to see that, let alone visiting friends and relatives and tourism, which is also a huge market.”