Flying the costly skies in Atlantic Canada

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It’s one of those questions for the ages – right up there with “Why is the sky blue?” and “How is it that Rob Ford is still alive?”

Why does it cost so much more to fly from Halifax to St. John’s than it does to fly from Halifax to Toronto?

Given the distances and the presumed cost of fuel, it seems counterintuitive. More than that. To at least one regional newspaper, it seems downright scandalous, especially in this penny-pinching, expense-scrutinizing age of so-called government accountability.

“A list of travel and hospitality expenses claimed by Liberal members of Parliament . . .show Gerry Byrne spent $21,470.22 and Judy Foote tallied $22,131.68 and Yvonne Jones claimed $24,590.22 from Oct. 1 to Dec. 31, 2013,” the Corner Brook Western Star’s lead editorial last Wednesday observed.

Are these excessive? The editorialist does not venture an opinion. He or she does, however, declare “The cost of air travel to and from Newfoundland is excessive and the cost for Labradorians to fly anywhere is outrageous.

“If any partisan pencil pushers are inclined to pick through the expenses of Liberal MPs looking for political ammunition, maybe they could also mount an investigation into why it costs almost as much to fly to St. john’s from this region as it does to fly from Halifax to Vancouver.”

I, for one, am glad he or she asked. I happen to have an answer. Sort of.

A while ago, bugged to near distraction by this conundrum, I did a little digging. According to Monette Pasher, executive director of the Atlantic Canada Airports Association, “Pricing is often a result of market demand and competition. . .There are over ten flights a day offered from Moncton to Toronto by three air carriers. From Moncton to Halifax there are four flights a day offered by one carrier.”

What’s more, she said, the cost competitiveness issue is not restricted to Atlantic Canada; it’s actually a national problem, though it may be more prevalent along the East Coast. Here, she noted, “U.S. airports are in close proximity. . .You see the low-cost carriers in the U.S. and they are setting up services at the border to attract Canadians who will travel for cheaper fares.”

In fact, according to her estimates, this country is losing five million Canadian passengers to the U.S. every year. That equates to $1.3 billion in lost Canadian GDP and $200 million in lost tax revenue.

For Atlantic Canada, the issue is clearly a personal economic concern. “While we have a relatively modest population base of 2.3 million people, we welcome over five million visitors to our region every year, which makes tourism an important sector in the economic generator in Atlantic Canada,” Keith Collins and David Innes, the CEOs of the St. John’s International Airport and Fredericton International Airport, respectively, told Standing Senate Committee on Transport and Communications not long ago.

“Our 14 airports move more than 6.5 million passengers per year, which is three times the total population of the region. That number has grown by an average of five per cent annually since 2002. We are not only moving passengers and cargo in and out of Atlantic Canada; we are enabling the growth of our local economies. Our airports together generate over $2.6 billion in economic activity every year, supporting just under 17,000 person years of employment and over $500 million in wages alone.”

There may be solutions, however. “The maritime airports have worked together with Air Canada’s business sales team to develop a more convenient approach to business travel in the region,” Ms. Pasher reported. “In 2012, they created the Halifax Commuter Flight Pass, which allows for consistent pricing for air travel between many Maritime cities and Halifax.

“You can select one traveller or business and it will give you options and cost for packages. This gives a business traveller a set cost to travel by air between a number of Atlantic Canada cities and Halifax. It works out to $245 for a one way flight credit for a single traveller.”

Not bad. Still, my travel consultant just booked me on a Moncton-Toronto return for three-hundred bucks, taxes in.

The fact is, until more competition crowds the costly skies, we’re stuck paying through the nose for regional air travel. And, unlike Mr. Byrne and company, we can’t pass along the cost to the taxpayers as, well. . .they would be us.

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