WestJet’s chief executive visited the capital region on Friday where he met with business people to share his confidence in the company’s growth at the Victoria International Airport.
“More than half of all passengers that fly to and from Victoria are flying on WestJet,” Alexis von Hoensbroech said at Destination Greater Victoria’s office.
A total of 1.2 million WestJet passengers are forecast to pass through the airport this year, an increase of 33 per cent from last year, he said.
“Our growth here in Victoria is actually very substantial. This is showing strong confidence in this market and in its growth potential and there’s more to come.”
He had no immediate announcements for service in and out of the Victoria region but anticipates growth as the industry climbs out of the “brutal” impact of the pandemic.
Compared to pre-COVID in 2019, he expects that passengers numbers through the Victoria airport will be higher this year and the number of flights will be comparable.
WestJet is awaiting final federal approval of its bid to acquire Sunwing Airlines which concentrates on vacation travel. The company received the thumbs up this month but has to meet certain conditions.
“We believe that it will strengthen our collective leisure business. … What it may mean for Victoria I can’t tell you today,” von Hoensbroech said.
“But our vision for Victoria is to grow our presence in Victoria because we think this market is still not adequately served. … This will come over time.”
WestJet has ordered up to 85 more planes to join the company’s fleet within five to six years and some will be earmarked for Victoria, von Hoensbroech said. “This will fuel a lot of growth.”
“We are focusing on Western Canada and on leisure flying and both boxes are checked in Victoria. It is in the West and it is a market that has a lot of leisure potential.”
That potential is for both the outgoing and incoming market, von Hoensbroech said. WestJet this year is bringing back flights between Victoria and Winnipeg.
WestJet offers flights daily between Victoria and Calgary, the company’s home base, and the gateway to international travel, von Hoensbroech noted. “So with one stop in Calgary you can actually reach everything.”
Bruce Williams, chief executive of the Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce, said to von Hoensbroech, “Another really important thing about WestJet is the role you’ve played in keeping our economy buoyant here because of all the domestic travel via WestJet throughout the pandemic.”
WesJet played a “crucial” role in supporting the local economy, Williams said.
Von Hoensbroech said the company knows how important it was to keep the air transportation lifeline alive during the pandemic. It helps attract investments by providing good access to Victoria and also supports the tourism sector, one of the region’s major economic drivers.
Although the majority of travel through Victoria is private travel there is a “fair but growing” business travel sector, he said.
“Victoria is growing its business footprint. This is naturally also creating business travel.”
Routes are planned seasonally and he can’t say now what may be added in the future. WestJet offers flights from Victoria to Cancun and Puerto Vallarta in winter.
What is missing in Victoria is a good ground transportation to and from the airport, he said, recommending more access to public transportation to serve the demand. Early morning and late evening would be ideal.
B.C. Transit makes up to 28 departures to and from the airport and the McTavish transit exchange with connections to Swartz Bay, the Saanich Peninsula and downtown Victoria. Buses are at the airport weekdays between 6:37 a.m. and 9:07 p.m. But there is no direct service between downtown and the airport.
Rod Hunchak, Victoria Airport Authority director of business development and community relations, understands Hoensbroech’s position.
The airport authority, which manages the airport, is anxious to see B.C.’s Passenger Transportation Board approve Uber’s application to operate in Victoria, Hunchak said.
“We believe ride hailing, which is found in practically every other jurisdiction in Canada with a major airport, to be desperately needed to help alleviate some of the current regional transportation challenges.”
A private shuttle service serving the airport stopped operating last year because of low passenger numbers.
When it comes to taxis, short local trips are not always easy to line up, especially in the early morning and late at night, Hunchak said.
The airport authority keeps in regular contact with B.C. Transit, he said. But B.C. Transit’s position is to look at continued investment in enhancing service frequency between the airport and the McTavish Interchange rather than considering direct service between downtown and the airport, Hunchak said.
B.C. Transit said in a statement that the McTavish interchange was established so that riders can change on to buses serving downtown Victoria and to buses that service the Peninsula and airport.
“It costs eight times more to extend trips from the airport to downtown Victoria instead of the McTavish exchange,” B.C. Transit said in a statement. “For the same costs of providing frequent, 15-minute service between the airport and McTavish exchange we could provide only 120-minute frequency between the airport and downtown Victoria.”
If B.C. Transit chose to pay the higher costs for direct downtown service, that would leave fewer resources for growing Peninsula communities, the statement said.
In addition, the airport-to-McTavish exchange aligns better for future Peninsula RapidBus plans, it said.