The challenge of making an ultra-low-cost airline work in Canada

We haven’t seen a rush of potential new entrants into the Canadian airline market like this in 15 years.

Winnipeg-based NewLeaf Travel started operations just over a year ago as a “virtual airline”, selling low-priced tickets to places like Edmonton and Hamilton on chartered Boeing 737s. In recent months, Flair Air, NewLeaf’s primary chartered-aircraft provider, purchased NewLeaf’s assets and started operating the service under the Flair brand.

More recently, WestJet announced plans to start an ultra-low-cost “airline within an airline” to compete on price-sensitive routes. Jetlines, a completely new startup, announced a Summer 2018 proposed launch date; and Enerjet, a small Calgary-based charter operator, also hopes to get a proposed ultra-low-cost airline called FlyToo into the air.

All hope to avoid the fate of the low-cost startups of the late ‘90s and early ‘00s. These included Greyhound Air (Greyhound quit the industry in 1997, aircraft operator Kelowna Flightcraft survived), JetsGo (bankrupt, 2005), CanJet (changed from a scheduled operator to charter operator, 2006; suspended operations, 2015) and Harmony Airways (suspended operations, 2007).

If Europe’s Ryanair can take you from London to Portugal for fares as low as £101 round-trip ($166 Cdn.), and Australia’s JetStar can offer a Sydney-Adelaide round-trip for as little as $224 (same in Canadian dollars), why has it been so difficult to make low-fares work in Canada.*

Quite often, high taxes and fees have been blamed. For example, a Sept. 6-13 round-trip between Winnipeg and Montreal on Air Canada can be booked for $391.57 if you’re willing to fly on the less heavily booked flights. Of this, $89.57 — or 23 percent — is made up of taxes, fees and charges.

The other challenge is in convincing enough passengers to part with enough money to make the venture profitable.

Let’s take Ryanair, one of the industry’s fiercest penny-pinchers, as an example. This is the airline alleged to have pressured flight attendants to meet sales targets, spread families and couples randomly throughout the cabin for not paying extra for seat selection, and which mused about charging passengers to use the toilet.

Ryanair’s costs are impressively low, averaging out to just 3.63 U.S. cents (4.6 cents Cdn.) per seat per kilometre in recent times. Only a few airlines, such as Air Asia, have been able to wrestle their costs any lower. One way Ryanair does this is by packing more seats into each aircraft: one of their Boeing 737-800s can carry 189 passengers; WestJet only fits 168 seats into the same space.

What if a Canadian operator, hypothetically called JetManitoba, started flying Boeing 737-800s around North America, and matched Ryanair’s low costs through a combination of low wages, no overnight crew stops, high-density seating and a stringent nobody-gets-anything-for-free pricing model?

JetManitoba Flight 1, our hometown low-fare leader, starts out early in the morning with a round-trip to Vancouver and back. In the afternoon, it does another round-trip to somewhere else.

At a rock-bottom cost of 4.6 cents per seat-kilometre, JetManitoba’s 189-seat Boeing 737 needs sales of $32,516 (before taxes, fees and charges) to make each Winnipeg-Vancouver round-trip nominally break even.

No problem, you might think. $32,516 divided by 189 seats is a very reasonable $172 per seat round-trip. Add the taxes, fees and charges to that, and you can still offer a no-frills round-trip to Vancouver for less than $300. Just make the profit off of charging people $25 per checked bag or roll-aboard, $15 per person each way for seat selection (at risk of being assigned a random seat if you don’t pay up), and $15 per person for a drink and a sandwich (because JetManitoba has a monopoly on food sales at 36,000 feet).

Now, imagine it’s early February. The Canadian tourism industry is largely in hibernation. Winnipeg is under a Wind Chill Warning because it’s -24°C at midday, with the wind blowing from the northwest at 30 gusting to 50 kilometres per hour. In Vancouver, it’s raining as usual and no one has actually seen the sun in more than a week. Hardly anyone wants to be on holiday in either city.

Then what? The business travellers, who have no choice but to travel, tend to prefer Air Canada and WestJet over JetManitoba because of the better schedules. That leaves you largely with a tiny pool of would-be passengers that you somehow need to get at least $32,516 from to make each Winnipeg-Vancouver round-trip break even.

It doesn’t matter if you convince 189 people to part with $172 (plus taxes, etc.) each or 50 people to part with $650 each. It’s raising enough to cover that average of $32,516 in bills per round-trip that counts.

You could have a sale, offering 25 seats you know you will never sell for $172 for $99 or even $59 just to get a bit of cash flow to help you get through the low season, even if the flights are unprofitable.

Or cancel your Winnipeg-Vancouver service until the summer and fly to places that people actually want to fly to in February, such as southern resorts, competing directly with other airlines already serving these destinations. Again, for each round trip, you need to find a way of separating enough people in the community from enough money to keep your bills from falling into arrears. Not easy if there are more seats available than people capable of filling them.

Or just park the plane and lay people off until the tourism business starts to pick up again in the summer. You’ll still need to pay for the plane, if you can’t rent it out for the season, but at least your payroll and fuel costs will come way down.

Those are the challenges of running an ultra-low-cost airline in Canada. It is very difficult to make it work in a country where domestic leisure tourism all but shuts down for two-thirds of the year, the less price-sensitive business travel market is already well-served, and the seasonal international leisure routes are also well served by existing operators.

The ultra-low-cost-carrier business might start out with four contestants. Don’t bet on it carrying on like that.

 

* – Seat-only prices. Baggage, seat selection, food, beverages, etc. all extra.

Modern-day air travel versus 1974: Packed in like cattle, but the mileage is better

If you want to find quick sympathy in Canada in January, you can complain about one of two things: the weather, or the airlines.

“Long-time air traveller Guilford Boyce says he misses the golden age of travel, when airlines went out of their way to make passengers feel special,” a Jan. 2 CTV News report noted, in a web article titled “Passengers lament ‘nickel-and-dime’ fees as airlines face thin profit margins”.

“Boyce says things have changed in the last few decades, to the point where he feels more like livestock every time he gets on a flight.”

Indeed, the days when airlines promoted themselves on the basis of their service — at least in Economy Class — are gone. To the extent that they still do compete on service, it’s usually in their expensive premium cabins.

But if we, the traveling public, are getting less pampered in our close-together Economy seats, at least we can claim that we are getting better mileage out of our dollars.

A web site called Departed Flights has posted a collection of image scans from old airline timetables. One of the more interesting scans is the Winnipeg page from a Northwest Orient timetable published in December, 1974. The Twin Cities-based airline, which dropped the “Orient” part of its name in the ‘80s and was absorbed into Delta Air Lines some seven years ago, published its each-way fares in its timetables.

This was possible at the time given that air fares were government-regulated, and set at fixed prices proportional to distance, even if these prices were at odds with supply and demand.

And those fares were usually eye-wateringly expensive by today’s standards.

Keen to get away from Winnipeg’s winter cold to someplace warmer, like California? A 1974 round-trip to Los Angeles or San Francisco would have set you back $290 Cdn. — or $1,366 in 2016 dollars. A round-trip to Tampa/St. Petersburg, Fla., meanwhile, would have cost the equivalent of $1,281 in 2016 dollars.

Currently, July 2017 round-trips between Winnipeg and both Florida and California are priced in the $700 to $800 range.

The only fare that is more expensive today than it was in 1974, after adjustment for inflation: the relatively short trips to Minneapolis/St. Paul and to Chicago; and presumably to Grand Forks.

 

Winnipeg to… 1974 one-way fare (CAD) 1974 round-trip fare 1974 fare in 2016 dollars Typical mid-week July 2017 fares as of Jan. 8, 2017 (CAD) 1974 fare would now pay for a round-trip to…
Boston $125 $250 $1,178 $340 London
Chicago $70.35 $140.70 $663 $699 Seattle
Grand Forks, N.D. $22.05 $44.10 $208 Not bookable, despite Delta serving both cities via MSP. Google Flights lists “travel agent” fares from $900 and up.
Los Angeles $145 $290 $1,366 $706 Honolulu
Miami $148 $296 $1,394 $751 Madrid
Minneapolis/St. Paul $46.20 $92.40 $435 $597 Montreal
New York City $111 $222 $1,046 $396 Shanghai
San Francisco $145 $290 $1,366 $760 Hong Kong
Tampa/St. Petersburg $136 $272 $1,281 $748 Lima

It’s also instructive to observe how much further one can go for the same amount of money in 2017 compared to 1974. The same amount that one would have needed to fly to New York City and back in 1974 — $222, equivalent to $1,046 in 2016 — would pay for a round-trip to Shanghai thanks to the current trans-Pacific fare wars.

As for that 1974 $296 round-trip fare to Miami — equivalent to $1,366 in 2016 dollars: Today, the same amount would pay for a round-trip journey to Madrid. And the $250 you would have spent in 1974 to go to Boston — $1,178 in 2016 dollars? That would get you to London and back today.

So, while passengers might be packed in closer together than ever, less fed and less pampered, today is still arguably the golden age of international travel. Never have so many been able to travel so many miles at such a low cost.

Why 100% foreign ownership of the major airlines is on hold (even if it’s a good idea)

It costs a lot of money to be in the airline business. In 2015, it cost Air Canada more than $12.3 billion (or $236 per seat-trip) to keep the airline flying. The smaller WestJet cost a little over $3.4 billion to run, or approximately $213 per seat-trip. Even if half the passengers vanished overnight, most of those multi-billion-dollar costs would still need to be paid as overhead.

When fleets need to be renewed or IT systems need to be modernized, it can be helpful if the airline can turn to investors. But Canada’s major airlines are limited in who they can turn to by something that might seem rather petty in this day and age: where those investors live.

That’s because Canadian law requires that “at least 75 percent of the voting interests, meaning voting securities and the votes assigned to those securities, need to be both owned and controlled by Canadians.” In other words, foreigners are collectively limited to a 25-percent stake.

For years, this cap on foreign ownership has been seen as being of dubious value. Both Australia and New Zealand have allowed up to 49 percent foreign ownership of their international airlines, and 100 percent foreign ownership of strictly domestic airlines, since at least 2002 with no adverse effects. A working paper presented at the International Civil Aviation Organization’s 2013 Montreal conference painted the industry as being still subject to “a framework of restrictions developed in the first half of the 20th century at the end of an age of colonial empires” that are “no longer fit for purpose.” And an International Air Transport Association (IATA) report noted in 2007 that “removing ownership restrictions can also lead to increased investment in the sector . . . and a lower cost of capital as firms have access to wider and more efficient sources of finance.”

At last, momentum is building in Canada to allow foreigners a little more freedom to invest in Canadian airlines. A review of the Canada Transportation Act that concluded this past February recommended allowing up to 49 percent foreign ownership of Canada’s passenger airlines and complete foreign ownership of its cargo airlines.

The idea was met with mixed views in the industry. WestJet is said to favour raising the foreign ownership limit to 49 percent only for countries that allow Canadian investors the same privileges. Porter and Jetlines were said to be all for it, while Air Canada carefully maintained a poker face.

But why stop at 49 percent? Why not raise the passenger airline foreign ownership limit to 100 percent?

A big part of the problem can be found in those restrictions that limit international air traffic. When they fly between countries, airlines need to abide by rules set out by international treaties negotiated between Canada and foreign governments.

Most of those treaties, some of which are decades old, would bar any majority-foreign-owned Canadian airlines from serving foreign cities. For instance:

  • Canada’s agreement with Mexico says that either country has the right “to revoke, suspend or impose conditions” on an airline’s right to fly between the two countries if “they are not satisfied that substantial ownership and effective control of the airline are vested in [the country’s government] or its nationals.”
  • Canada’s agreement with the European Union says that a Canadian airline can only serve the E.U. if “effective control of the airline are vested in nationals of Canada, the airline is licensed as a Canadian airline, and the airline has its principal place of business in Canada.” Similar restrictions apply to E.U. airlines flying to Canada.
  • And Canada’s agreement with China allows China to block any seemingly Canadian airline if “they are not satisfied that substantial ownership and effective control of the airline” rests with Canadian citizens. Again, Canada can apply the same requirement to China’s airlines

It is possible that the basis for those restrictions will eventually be worked around. As the IATA’s 2007 report noted, international safety standards were already taking shape when the report was being written (including an operational safety audit that was to be mandatory for all IATA member-airlines starting in 2008) that would prevent airlines from adopting the flags-of-convenience often used in the cruise ship industry; thus, safety standards are no longer a particularly compelling reason to block foreign ownership among the countries whose airlines already have excellent safety records.

And while there were approximately 3,000 international agreements regulating air travel in 2007, only 200 of them already covered 75 percent of passenger traffic, greatly simplifying the process of revising those treaties to allow full foreign ownership between countries with similarly high standards.

There’s no longer any need to fear American or German or Australian or Japanese or British ownership of Canadian airlines. Indeed, the easier it is for Canadian carriers to get investment from abroad, the more robust the Canadian system will be. Until 100-percent foreign ownership can be allowed without running afoul of decades-old international treaties, raising the foreign ownership limit from 25 percent to 49 percent would be a fine start.

 

NewLeaf offers low fares, but to the wrong places

Longing to get away from this terrible winter weather to someplace warm and sunny? Well, here is a deal for you: $410 airfare per person for a quick southern getaway, leaving Friday, Feb. 12 and returning Monday, Feb. 15.

One catch: You need to be in the U.K. to take advantage of this low round-trip easyJet fare between Bristol and Malaga, in southern Spain.

Darn! There’s always a catch, isn’t there?

Europe’s cheap flights have been the envy of Canadians for years, even as Europeans ranted bitterly about poor customer service and “gotcha” penalties that brought the total cost almost up to the prices charged by full-service airlines.

A new travel company called NewLeaf — a nominal airline selling seats on Boeing 737-400s operated by Flair Air, a B.C.-based charter operator — proposes to bring European-style low fares to Canadian skies when it launches next month. The carrier will link seven Canadian cities,  with most flights operating only once or twice a week: Abbotsford, Kelowna, Saskatoon, Regina, Winnipeg, Hamilton and Halifax.

The fares are indeed attractive. As of Sunday, Jan. 17, a Mar. 2-9 Winnipeg-Abbotsford round trip sells for just $232.75, taxes and fees included.

Like other ultra low cost carriers, NewLeaf will make its real money from all the things you can sell or charge passengers for after they’ve made that modest financial commitment to be aboard the flights: bag fees that include charges for your carry-ons, seat selection fees, food and drink sales, and so on.

But NewLeaf won’t find it easy to apply the Ryanair/easyJet methodology to the Canadian market.

The European ultra low cost carriers have succeeded by selling the lingering sex appeal of travel: dreams of long weekends in Italy, stag parties in Estonia, second homes in the south of France, and trips to watch a favourite football team play abroad.

NewLeaf’s launch destinations, by comparison, lack that sort of excitement. Hamilton Airport is about 85 kilometres from both Toronto and Niagara Falls, both of which are interesting enough. But if you’ve been to each two or three times, as many Canadians have been, it’s difficult to justify an additional visit when you can go somewhere new instead. The same applies to Vancouver, which is about 70 kilometres west of Abbotsford.

Neither Hamilton nor Abbotsford nor the other launch cities (with the possible exception of Halifax, which offers a little bit of historical charm as one of Canada’s older cities) are particularly worth visiting for those who otherwise have no connection to the place.

Where could a Canadian ultra low cost carrier go that would allow it to sell the sex appeal of travel the same way that Ryanair and easyJet do? Since these carriers try to get their crews home every night to avoid the cost of putting them up in hotels, they would need to be within a few hours’ flying time of Winnipeg, and be the kinds of places people dream of going. A few suggestions:

 

  • Florida: A favourite with families. Since Winnipeg Airport has U.S. Customs and Border Protection pre-clearance gates, NewLeaf would be able to land at whichever airport offers the airline the best terms: most likely one of Orlando’s airports for the city’s central location within the state and proximity to Disney World. Approximate flying time from Winnipeg: 4 hours.

 

  • Las Vegas: The original Sin City, still popular after all these years with Canadians looking to party. Plenty of competition on this route, but also plenty of price-sensitive demand. Approximate flying time from Winnipeg: 3.25 hours.

 

  • New Orleans: Routinely one of North America’s Top 10 urban tourism draws for its rich history, gastronomy and, of course, the annual party known as Mardi Gras. Approximate flying time from Winnipeg: 3.5 hours.

 

  • New York City: One of the great cities of the world; well worth a visit, even if accommodations are notoriously expensive. Metropolitan New York’s three main airports — JFK, La Guardia and Newark — can be challenging places for an airline to get a landing slot at, but alternatives are available at Westchester County airport (35 miles north of Midtown Manhattan, but with limited public transportation links) and at Long Island MacArthur Airport (about 55 miles east, but close to the Ronkonkoma train station, which offers direct rail service to Grand Central Terminal). Approximate flying time from Winnipeg: 3.25 hours.

 

  • Quebec City: Canada’s most European city, likely its most romantic, and yet one that many Canadians have not visited. A week might be a bit long to spend there, but a long weekend visit would be ideal. Approximate flying time from Winnipeg: 3.25 hours.

 

  • San Francisco and the Bay Area: Historic San Francisco is a major tourist draw in its own right, and only 60 miles from the Napa Valley for wine connoisseurs. An airline would be able to shop around at multiple airports for the best deal, including Oakland and San Jose. Approximate flying time from Winnipeg: 3.75 hours.

 

  • Southern California: Like Florida, southern California is popular with families and those enamoured with the region’s mild year-round climate and proximity to the sea. There are many airports that a low-cost carrier could shop around at for a deal, including Santa Ana/Orange County, Ontario, San Diego, Burbank, Palm Springs and Santa Barbara. Approximate flying time from Winnipeg: 3.75 hours.

Dear Politicians: Steal This Idea

The airline industry might be a favourite whipping boy for all kinds of reasons, sometimes for understandable ones, but now they’re even taking a beating for getting people to their destinations on-time.

A Nov. 29 Los Angeles Times report cites the example of a semi-retired electrical engineer who used to be able to fly from Palm Springs, Calif. to San Francisco in 55 minutes. Today, that same trip is scheduled to take 90 minutes, leading to accusations that airlines “pad” their schedules to improve their on-time performance.

“It tells me that the on-time statistics are worthless,” the Times reports Joe Nolan, who lives in Palm Desert, a Palm Springs suburb, as saying.

The writer concedes that Nolan “might have a point”. Indeed, he does; but in a different way than one might expect.

Two commonly used measures of airline on-time performance are the average delay, and the percentage of flights arriving within 15 minutes of the scheduled time.

In September, the most recent available month, the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics’s numbers for the two U.S. carriers serving Winnipeg looked pretty good: the average United flight system-wide arrived two minutes early, and the average Delta flight pulled up to the gate four minutes ahead of schedule. No such information was available for Air Canada and WestJet on this side of the border.

According to FlightStats.com, which shares each airline’s on-time performance according to the 15-minute rule, all four carriers saw more than 80 percent of their flights arrive on time during the two months from Sept. 15 to Nov. 15.

But what use is that to you, the consumer? Not much; in fact, it might give you a false sense of security.

As anyone routinely traveling from Winnipeg will know, it’s often necessary to make at least one flight connection to reach the desired destination. But when the consumer books a flight, they’re not assuming a flight will arrive at the gate at the scheduled time with fifty-fifty-ish probability — they’re assuming something closer to 100-percent probability.

After all, if the average flight arrives early, and the vast majority of flights arrive within 15 minutes of the scheduled arrival time, isn’t it just going to be alright?

This week, I looked up the Nov. 24-Dec. 1 stats for 40 randomly chosen aircraft — 10 each flying in Air Canada, WestJet, Delta and United colours — and tracked their on-time performance during that period. This included 235 Air Canada-branded flights, 309 WestJet-branded flights, 259 Delta-branded flights, and 241 United-branded flights. (Since Flightradar24.com data reports landing times, I assumed an average eight-minute taxi-in time, consistent with U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics information.)

The average estimated deviation from schedule was, at worst, insignificant: three minutes late on Air Canada, four minutes early on United, five minutes early on WestJet, and 12 minutes early on Delta — which is not unusual for that airline, being the most conservative scheduler over the past couple of years.

Most of each airline’s branded flights were also on-time according to the 15-minute rule: 74 percent for Air Canada, 81 percent for WestJet, 60 percent for United and 61 percent for Delta. (The busy U.S. Thanksgiving holiday, which was expected to be more of a problem than usual this year due to tighter security, likely accounts for much of the difference.)

But if one were to look at the cut-off separating the worst five percent of each airline’s flights from the other 95 percent, that is where one starts to get a sense of how much of a delay should be assumed if the goal is a leisurely walk through the terminal from the arriving flight to the departure gate, and not a panicked sprint.

In this case, WestJet was the best performer, with 95 percent of flights arriving no more than 22 minutes late.

Delta and Air Canada were essentially tied, at 35 and 37 minutes respectively. United was the straggler, with the best 95 percent of flights arriving no more than 45 minutes late.

That is information that consumers can actually use, because those are the margins they should build into their schedules if they want to avoid a high-stress situation.

Given that governments like to play “the consumer’s best friend” when it comes to air travel, they could actually do something useful for a change by providing the public with not just average delays, but with an idea of what to expect when their flight turns out to be anything but average in a negative way.

Publicizing information on the cut-off between the “best 95 percent” and “worst 5 percent” of flights would not only save travellers the stress of running through airports, or arriving at the destination and finding their bags didn’t make the connecting flight; it would give a far more vivid illustration of each airline’s network performance than conventional on-time statistics ever could.

Drones and commercial aircraft on a collision course

Flights into and out of Sweden’s Arlanda Airport were delayed Monday night as air traffic control dealt with a new instance of an increasingly common problem: a drone having been spotted in airspace where it posed a collision risk to commercial airliners.

Monday’s incident wasn’t the first time that a drone interfered with air traffic in the region around Arlanda, which serves both Stockholm, 35 kilometres to the south, and Uppsala, 30 kilometres to the north. A 2014 report noted that drones flown in the airspace around Bromma Airport, a smaller airfield used mainly by budget carriers, occasionally caused flights to be diverted. Indeed, Bromma was closed for half an hour one day last month due to a drone being flown in restricted airspace.

While a drone might seem small compared to a jetliner, neither airlines nor pilots care to be burdened with the consequences of one being ingested into an engine, and no one wants to find out what would happen if a drone struck a windscreen, or the horizontal or vertical stabilizer at the back, at flight speeds.

Yet the day is likely coming when an aircraft and a drone will collide, hopefully without any consequences more serious than a smashed-up drone and a bit of superficial damage to the passing aircraft. Consider the following incidents:

June 5, 2015: A Southwest Boeing 737 landing at Dallas’s Love Field passed “a few hundred feet” from a drone being flown uncomfortably close to the arrival flight path. Another aircraft claimed to see a drone flying close to the approach path as well.

May 23, 2015: An Air Canada Embraer 190 taking off from Toronto en route to Saskatoon took “an evasive manoeuvre” to avoid colliding with a yellow- and black-coloured object flying at 2,200 feet above sea level (or about 1,600 feet above ground).

Sept. 1, 2014: A WestJet Boeing 737 was approaching Calgary inbound from San Diego at 7,000 feet above sea level (or about 3,500 feet above ground) when the pilots observed “a remote controlled vehicle crossing their flight path at the same altitude in front of them”.

And perhaps the most bizarre incident of them all:

March 19, 2014: The pilots of a chartered Dash-8 flying at 3,800 feet above sea level (3,700 feet above ground) over the northern outskirts of Perth, Australia noticed “a bright strobe light directly in front of the aircraft . . . [which] appeared to track towards the aircraft”. They took evasive action to avoid a collision with a grey, cylindrical-shaped object that passed about 20 metres off to the side of the aircraft and 30 metres below. The object that nearly collided with the aircraft remains unidentified, and the incident has been classified by Australian air safety investigators as a “serious incident” involving “interference from the ground”.

 

 

Three ways to take the stress out of international summer travel

Passengers wait in line to clear U.S. Customs and Border Protection at Dallas-Fort Worth Airport in 2013. The wait was nearly four hours, according to the person who took this photo. (Click for source.)

Passengers wait in line to clear U.S. Customs and Border Protection at Dallas-Fort Worth Airport in 2013. The wait was nearly four hours, according to the person who took this photo. (Click for source.)

In the summer of 1972, the earliest year for which Statistics Canada keeps numbers, 282,210 Canadians returned from trips to foreign countries other than the United States. It took another 16 years before that number finally cracked the 500,000 mark in the summer of 1988, and 17 more years before the one-million mark was passed in the summer of 2005.

If the people who worked in the airports in that busy summer of 2005 thought it was a hectic couple of months, they hadn’t seen anything yet. During July and August 2014, more than 1.7 million Canadians returned from foreign countries other than the U.S. — a 70 percent traffic increase in just nine years.

If the 2000-2014 trend were to continue, by the end of the decade an additional 300,000 Canadians will be coming home from long-haul foreign destinations every July and August, boosting total returnee traffic during those two peak months past the 2 million mark.

That might turn out to be good for Winnipeg’s long efforts to land more long-haul flights. Not only is demand for international travel continuing to rise, but the additional crowding at Canada’s traditional ports of entry and the upcoming launch of new versions of the Airbus A320 and Boeing 737 families — which will be able to fly nonstop for the first time from Winnipeg to the British Isles, bits of northwestern Europe or Hawai’i  — could make new seasonal services economically viable.

Yet in the meantime, this soaring demand creates a more pressing concern for Canadians this summer: how to keep one’s sanity in airports and on airplanes that are more tightly packed with people than ever.

1. Mind who you fly with. Even though the days are long gone when airlines advertised that they were so much fun to fly with you might not want to leave the aircraft, or showed supposed airline employees singing and dancing about what great service they offer (yes, that’s Suzanne Somers, pre-Three’s Company), there are still some airlines that have better reputations than others. Skytrax annually assesses the world’s airlines on quality of customer service, assigning one star to North Korea’s Air Koryo, the ultimate bottom-feeder, and five stars to the world’s best airlines, all of which are based in Asia or the oil-rich Middle East.

If you’re going to Asia, try flying Cathay Pacific or Japan’s ANA, two of the five-star airlines serving Canada. Air Canada is a safe enough bet as one of only four four-star North American airlines (the others being Porter, JetBlue and Virgin America). Other four-star airlines that partner with either Air Canada or WestJet include China Southern, Japan Air Lines, Korean Air, Air New Zealand, Air France, British Airways, KLM, Lufthansa, Swiss and Turkish Airlines.

2. Mind where you sit. A passably comfortable seat for someone of average height and waistline should be at least 17.5 inches wide, and offer a seat pitch of at least 31 inches, that being the distance from the back of your seat to the one in front of you. But more tightly packed seats previously found on short-haul feeder flights, 17 inches wide at a 30-inch pitch, have been making their way on to long-haul flights as airlines try to pack more passengers into each aircraft. Air Canada Rouge and Austrian Airlines are the worst offenders; though even the regular Air Canada has taken heat for outfitting some of its Boeing 777-300s with 458 seats, compared to just 299 seats on British Airways’ 777-300s.

Before booking, look for the aircraft’s seat pitch and width information on the airline’s web site or on SeatGuru.com. If the seat pitch is less than 31 inches, or the width is less than 17.5 inches, expect to feel squished.

3. Treat schedules as being somewhat like a politician’s promises. The typical flight, believe it or not, arrives at its destination almost exactly on time, or at least within five minutes of the scheduled time — and it’s the typical, or median, travel time that airlines normally use in setting their schedules to maximize aircraft and staff productivity.

While it’s in the airlines’ best interests to base their schedules on median travel times, it’s not in your interest as a traveler to do so, as this could force you to run for your connecting flight or wait in line to be rebooked if that flight leaves without you.

Canada’s two major airlines, Air Canada and WestJet, have been doing a fairly good job of keeping to schedule recently, but it’s still in your best interest to allow enough time in your schedule to handle a 30-minute delay (which will give you about 90 percent certainty) or a 45-minute delay if a missed connection would be more than just an inconvenience (which boosts the certainty level to about 95 percent on most airlines).

Delta and United, the two other big airlines serving Winnipeg, have been suffering some long delays on their worst 10 and five percent of flights recently. If flying Delta, a 30-minute delay allowance will still give you about 90 percent confidence of making a connection; but leave room for a delay of up to 70 minutes if making a connecting flight is absolutely critical.

United Airlines, the least-reliable major airline serving Winnipeg, should be given an even wider margin of error on its schedules. Based on its recent performance, allow for a 70-minute delay if you want 90 percent certainty of making a connecting flight; and for a 90-minute delay if you need 95 percent certainty.

Also beware of United’s tendency to sell unusually short connecting times between incoming international flights at its Chicago hub and onward flights to Canada, some connections being as short as 80 minutes. Your odds of making these connections are poor. All passengers arriving in the U.S., including those immediately continuing on to Canada, must go through full U.S. customs and immigration screening, which has been reported to take two to three hours on a busy day in Chicago due to U.S. government cost-cutting. After clearing U.S. border controls, you will need to re-check your bags, transfer from United’s international Terminal 5 to their domestic-and-Canada Terminal 2, go through security and make your way to the gate, which could easily add another hour or more. (And after all that fun, you’ll need to do the whole border clearance thing again two hours later here on return to Canada!)

Delta’s Minneapolis/St. Paul hub is said to work somewhat better; but even then a minimum connection time of three hours is recommended, not including delay allowances, if you arrive from outside of North America and connect onward to Canada.

If arriving in Canada from abroad at Toronto, Montreal or Vancouver, budget at least 90 minutes for immigration, baggage delivery, customs, baggage re-check, security screening and boarding when coming back into the country, on top of the 30-to-45 minute delay buffers suggested above.