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Monday,  May 20, 2024 8:50 AM 

"Better than last year": How the holiday rush went for agents & airlines (and other observations)


"Better than last year": How the holiday rush went for agents & airlines (and other observations)
Canadian travel advisors & airlines look back on the 2023-24 holiday travel rush. (File photos)
Michael Pihach

Michael Pihach is an award-winning journalist with a keen interest in digital storytelling. In addition to PAX, Michael has also written for CBC Life, Ryerson University Magazine, IN Magazine, and DailyXtra.ca. Michael joins PAX after years of working at popular Canadian television shows, such as Steven and Chris, The Goods and The Marilyn Denis Show.

The prospect of travel snarls during the holidays wasn’t lost on the aviation industry this past season.

Drawing on lessons learned from the chaos of 2022’s disastrous Christmas period – when a snowstorm slammed into major Canadian airports on peak travel days, crippling operations – airports and airlines came winter ready this year with ramped-up staffing and flight schedules, updated facilities, travel tips and new tools aimed at improving the passenger experience.

Every airline had a strategy, but the common thread that ran through the sector was a commitment to do better.

As WestJet CEO Alexis von Hoensbroech said on Dec. 12 on his LinkedIn page: “We can’t control the weather but we can control how we deal with disruption.”

Frankly, Canadian airlines had no choice but to evolve in order to accommodate the record number of travellers who seemingly went on holidays this winter.  

Vancouver airport (YVR) anticipated two million passengers in December. (X/@yvrairport)

While the final tally isn’t in yet – the holiday travel season isn’t over – preliminary traffic numbers released in December painted a busy picture.

Toronto Pearson airport (YYZ) said last month that it was anticipating 160,000 passengers daily at peak times in December, representing a ten per cent increase.

In Western Canada, Vancouver airport (YVR) was anticipating two million passengers for December – nearly 250,000 more than last year.

“Much better than last year”

So, how did it all go? Well, to be fair, it’s only day five of 2024. It’s too soon to get the full the picture.

But based on feedback from travel advisors, it appears this year’s holiday travel rush, generally speaking, was a lot smoother than 2022.

“All of my travellers got to and from destination without any issues over the holidays,” said Ridgeway, ON-based Michelle Gaudet of Inspired Travel Adventures & Women's Wellness Journeys.

Gaudet had all sorts of clients travelling during the winter break – couples heading to Cancun, Italy, Spain and Portugal. She also had a family booking in Honduras.

Michelle Gaudet of Inspired Travel Adventures & Women's Wellness Journeys. (Supplied)

“There were no complaints from anyone,” Gaudet told PAX. “It was a successful holiday season. Much better than last year.”

That’s not to say all air travel in Canada went off without a hitch. Despite comprehensive winter readiness plans, airports still saw delays during peak holiday times.

Christmas Eve at Vancouver airport, for example, was a headache for some as Nav Canada, which owns and operates Canada's civil air navigation system, faced resource constraints.

The issue, which Nav Canada Operations confirmed on the social media platform X, caused flight delays lasting several hours in the moments leading up to Christmas, reports say.  

“Not a single issue”

Still, with favourable weather conditions in snow-prone regions of Canada, the tone this season, compared to last year, appears to be less hostile.  

“Clients that have been travelling have said it’s been smooth. Not a single issue,” said Tannis Dyrland, owner and CEO of Alberta-based Tisson Travel Group. “We even had a delayed flight for a family member and he still made it. His bags as well.”

“It seems that travel has been efficient this season. It’s a nice change from previous years.”

Tannis Dyrland, owner and CEO of Alberta-based Tisson Travel Group. (Supplied)

The full scope of 2023 and 2024’s holiday rush will be clearer in the coming weeks as the final days of winter vacation wrap up.

The Greater Toronto Airports Authority (GTAA), which operates Toronto Pearson, for one, is expecting another busy weekend as people return from their holidays.

The authority told PAX that it will share its holiday stats once they become available.

In the meantime, we reached out to Canada’s major airlines to get a sense of how things went.

WestJet reports improvements

WestJet Group CEO Alexis von Hoensbroech seemed pleased with how his airlines (which now includes Sunwing) fared in the days leading up to Christmas Day.

On Dec. 28, on social media, he posted a FlightRadar animation depicting a replay of WestJet and Sunwing aircraft seamlessly zipping around the continent.

“What a difference to last year,” von Hoensbroech wrote, adding a snowflake and laughing face emoji to his post.

On his LinkedIn page, the CEO noted a more than 99.3 per cent completion factor and more than 70 per cent punctuality rate during the pre-Christmas period, crediting “strong preparation” and stable weather.

PAX contacted WestJet to get a fuller picture and learned that from Dec. 18-31, the Calgary-based company operated a total of 6,986 scheduled flights – nearly 1,000 more than the previous year, carrying more than 70,000 guests a day on its busiest days.

(WestJet)

Reporting a completion factor of 98.8 per cent, with 77.3 per cent of all flights arriving with 15 minutes of scheduled arrival time, WestJet said it improved upon its operational performance in comparison to the year prior by 19.6 per cent and 48.7 per cent, respectively.

Additionally, as a result of collaboration with service partners and a commitment to improve its baggage services, WestJet said it improved its baggage handling performance by 87 per cent, in comparison to the 2022 holiday season. 

Nothing to flag at Air Transat

It’s a similar situation at Montreal-based Air Transat.

In a statement to PAX, Bernard Cote, director of marketing, public relations, social media and content, said the airline geared up for a busy holiday season “by leveraging the same successful strategies as last year, where proactive planning and team commitment helped us avoid some of the disruptions that affected the industry.”

The airline last month also averted a possible strike that could have hit on Jan. 3. (But as reported this week, Air Transat and CUPE, the union that represents flight attendants, have returned to the bargaining table). 

(Pax Global Media/file photo)

“We did see some delays, but nothing major to flag,” Cote wrote, noting an “improvement over the same period last year.”

“Overall, we are very happy with our performance over the past few days." 

100% completion at Sunwing

Sunwing told PAX it is “incredibly pleased” with its performance record for the late December-early January period.

The tour operator said it successfully flew more than 150,000 passengers on 975 flights to sun destinations between Dec. 23 to Jan. 2 – with 100 per cent of flights completed.

(Sunwing)

“We would also like to acknowledge and thank all of our employees and service providers for their unwavering dedication to making the peak holiday season such a success, from our operations team to the pilots and cabin crew, as well as our third-party ground handlers at the airport,” wrote spokesperson Marissa Maheu-Mendes in an email.  

“We look forward to helping even more passengers travel to their favourite sun destinations in the weeks and months ahead.”

Rain, wind in Atlantic Canada

Porter Airlines, which operates both Embraer E195-E2 jets and De Havilland Dash 8-400 turboprops, experienced some disruptions during the holidays due to bad weather.

At times, both rain and high winds impacted air travel across Atlantic Canada, the Toronto-based airline told PAX.

There were also consecutive days of poor visibility at Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport (YTZ), which forced crews and aircraft out of position.

Porter Embraer E195-E2 jet. (Pax Global Media/file photo)

“Porter took proactive measures by upgauging from the 78-seat Dash 8-400 to the 132-seat Embraer E195-2 on certain routes, which provided flexibility to move more passengers and time to realign aircraft and crew in order to continue operating the regional schedule,” the airline said.  

Porter’s broader North American network, predominantly operated by the Embraer E195-E2, was less impacted and operated with a high schedule completion rate, Porter said.

“We recognize how operational challenges affect passengers, especially during the holidays,” the airline said. “We're committed to getting everyone where they need to go as safely and as quickly as possible.”

PAX contacted Air Canada for comment but did not hear back by press time.

2024 observations

Dartmouth, NS-based travel advisor Sharon Loppie of TravelBug Travel said her Christmas week “was actually fairly slow.”

But with January now in full swing, “it has been flat-out busy,” she told PAX.

One trend Loppie has noticed in the first week of 2024 is that within a day or two of quoting a client, rates will increase and, in some cases, room categories will sell out.

“There is a lot of demand and supply is dwindling faster than in past years,” said Loppie, who was one of 15 Canadian travel advisors recognized as a top performer by the Jamaica Tourist Board last month. 

Sharon Loppie of TravelBug Travel. (Supplied)

Loppie noted how there are rarely any last-minute deals like there used to be.

“I encourage clients to book early to get the best rates, resorts and experiences,” she said. “This week, many clients are realizing that booking early may have gotten them better options.”

Another observation she’s made in the new year relates to group bookings. 

“Agents are still having to wait for days, and even weeks, to hear a response from group departments,” she said. “This is an issue for agents as we cannot get answers in a speedy fashion and we look incapable to our clients.”


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