Victoria International Airport got a welcome boost to its pandemic-ravaged operations Thursday when a new airline touched down with 70 passengers from Toronto.
The Swoop Airlines jet on a direct flight from Pearson International got a water-cannon salute from YYJ’s fire trucks. It was the start of two direct flights a week from Toronto for WestJet’s budget airline — moving to six a week in August — and a fitting signal air travel is returning and the aviation sector so vital to the region’s tourism economy is on the mend.
“It’s a big financial commitment from this airline on Victoria,” Geoff Dickson, chief executive of the Victoria Airport Authority, said Thursday as he welcomed the flight. “There are flights to Edmonton and Toronto, and there will be opportunities for other routes in the future.”
Swoop also announced twice weekly flights from Victoria to Las Vegas starting Oct. 31 and weekly flights to Puerto Vallarta starting in November, both pending the federal government’s decision to open international borders to travel.
Higher vaccination rates and declining COVID cases are positive signs for Victoria’s airport, which saw passenger traffic fall off a cliff during the pandemic. YYJ had a record two million passengers through the terminal in 2018 and 1.92 million in 2019, but those numbers took a drastic 70% dip in 2020 as the pandemic restricted travel and severed international links.
This year, traffic has ebbed and flowed as variants of the COVID-19 virus kept people close to home, leaving the airport with just a handful of daily flights to and from Kelowna and Prince George, Vancouver, Calgary and occasionally Toronto and Montreal.
Last month, just over 12,000 passengers went through the terminal at YYJ, double from the same month a year ago but only a fraction of the 170,000 in May of 2019.
Dickson expects those numbers to increase as confidence grows in air travel.
“There is a pent-up demand to travel according to all the polls out there,” he said. “People seem willing to spend that disposable income on increased leisure travel. And I think it will come back quickly because people want to see relatives, friends and family.”
Dickson noted many U.S. airports are already seeing traffic increase to near pre-pandemic levels as air travel rises with vaccination rates.
Bert van der Stege, head of commercial and finance for Swoop, said the airline is supporting the economic recovery of Greater Victoria by offering affordable air travel to Toronto and Edmonton as well as sun destinations this winter.
A one-way flight from Victoria to Toronto, non-stop taking four hours and 25 minutes, can be booked for $250, including taxes. To Edmonton, it ranges from $60 to $180, depending on the day.
Meanwhile, direct flights to Toronto are scheduled to resume on a limited basis in July at the Nanaimo Airport.
Dave Devana, president and CEO of Nanaimo Airport, said Air Canada’s flights are part of a measured reopening of the economy. He said the flights will boost the Island’s tourism and hospitality sectors and make it easier for Islanders to visit and host family and friends from Eastern Canada via Toronto’s Pearson International Airport.
“Air Canada is a valued partner that supported Nanaimo Airport during the pandemic and continues to support us during reopening,” Devana said in a statement.
The non-stop flights start July 4. One flight a week is scheduled initially. The schedule may expand in August depending on the reopening plans and success of the vaccination programs in Canada.
Air Canada will resume its service to Calgary starting July 1, with five flights planned per week. The airline’s Nanaimo services will return on all three routes it served in summer 2019 — to Vancouver, Calgary and Toronto.
“Air access to Vancouver Island is a critical component for the long-term recovery of the tourism industry in our region,” said Anthony Everett, president and CEO of Tourism Vancouver Island. “It is a positive sign to see a major carrier making this investment in the mid-Island as the restart of travel begins.”
Angela Avery, WestJet executive vice-president, said WestJet continued essential service throughout the pandemic to Comox, Nanaimo and Victoria, and the airline now has a “clear reopening plan.”
“Working from a well-defined starting point has allowed WestJet and Swoop to add six new routes to and from the Island this summer to stimulate travel and directly support the province’s and the Island’s safe return of its visitor economy,” she said.